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Though Wildfire Smoke Threatens Farmworkers' Health, Volunteers Are Being Blocked From Distributing Protective Masks

Amid hazardous air conditions in California, farm management is turning away volunteers attempting to hand out masks to farmworkers.
Paulina Cortes, a community activist from San Jose, gives a protective particulate mask to a farmworker in Stockton, California, on November 16th, 2018.

Paulina Cortes, a community activist from San Jose, gives a protective particulate mask to a farmworker in Stockton, California, on November 16th, 2018.

The smoke hung so thick in the sky that it made the day unnaturally cold as Paulina Cortes drove east into California's San Joaquin Valley, out of the Bay Area and into the agricultural centers around Stockton and Lodi on Friday. Cortes, a community activist from San Jose, had come to distribute protective masks to farmworkers who they knew would still be laboring in air conditions local authorities had deemed Level 5: "Very Unhealthy." As the massive Camp fire continued to burn to the north of the Stockton area, the smoke had made air conditions across Northern California some of the most hazardous in the world.

But when Cortes and their partner attempted to hand out masks to workers at various fields throughout Stockton and Lodi, some managers at the farms demanded they leave the property. "Some people were hostile and kicked us out," Cortes says. "Others were suspicious and kind of wary."

In one instance in Lodi, Cortes says a man shouted at them and their partner, Luis Magaña, a labor organizer from Stockton, to get away from the workers. "He was telling me that I wasn't allowed to be there for safety and health reasons. But [he] wouldn't go into detail about it, even after I asked if they were aware that all of their workers' safety and health wasn't being protected," Cortes says.

Volunteers and community advocates elsewhere in the state report receiving a similar response from farm management. In Ventura County, community advocates attempting to hand out masks to workers experiencing smoke from the Woolsey fire say they were also turned away.

"Farms often cite food safety concerns [to explain] why they don't let volunteers distribute masks," says Lucas Zucker, the policy manager for the Central Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, a workers' advocacy organization on the Ventura coast.

As Pacific Standard reported on Wednesday, farmworkers in California often continue to work in hazardous air conditions from wildfires, even as schools close down and public officials warn people to remain indoors. Employers expect workers to continue to labor in the smoke, and, even when given the option to miss work, many laborers cannot afford to take the day off—especially because some cannot claim many disaster benefits due to their immigration status.

Though California labor laws protect workers from working in hazardous conditions, many factors align to put farmworkers' health at risk. As Pacific Standard reported:

Even though California's labor laws call for employers to determine if conditions are too harmful for farmworkers to work, Zucker says that state officials rarely travel to rural areas to enforce these protections. "Even though they have that guidance, there's essentially no teeth behind it," he says.

The law also calls for employers to offer workplace protections and distribute particulate masks to protect workers' lungs in potentially harmful—but not yet hazardous—conditions, in which work can continue. However, Zucker says that, during [fires in the past], few farm employers distributed such masks. This year, he says, there has been some improvement, but CAUSE and other organizations still have had to fill in the gaps and get masks to unprotected workers. 

Aracely Preciado, a youth activist with CAUSE, says she was able to distribute masks to many workers in Ventura County when the fires started last week. However, even as black smog blanketed the sky, she says, "A couple of places kicked us out."

An email distributed by the president and general counsel of the Ventura County Agricultural Association, and obtained by Pacific Standard, advised farmers in the area, "In cases where there is smoke in the workplace and work being conducted, please use appropriate N-95 facemasks for employees." The email also told employers that, "unless harvesting or other planting activities are absolutely necessary," they might consider letting workers have a couple of days off.

Zucker says that many farms did distribute masks to farmworkers in Ventura County, though CAUSE still distributed masks to workers who had not been provided lung protection by their employers. In the northern part of the state, however, Cortes reports they saw few workers wearing masks, and that many of the workers Cortes and Magaña spoke to were not even aware that the conditions they were working in could be harmful.

One of the men who tried to stop Cortes and Magaña from distributing masks in a field in Stockton told the two that workers "didn't want any masks."

"I asked if the workers were being provided masks and he said: 'They don't want any. We've asked them, and they say they prefer working without them. Not much we can do about that,'" Cortes says. However, according to Cortes, after they told him that they had masks they could distribute for free, the man allowed them to approach workers, who gladly accepted the protection.

The VCAA email advised that, if managers encounter volunteers attempting to distribute masks, the managers should ask the volunteers to give the masks to the manager to distribute instead: "Because of food safety laws, and other potential liability problems with moving equipment and deep furrows, third-parties who have not been authorized to come onto the business premises should be excluded."

Zucker and Cortes both noted that the hostile way managers sometimes treat volunteers might have less to do with food safety concerns, and more to do with employers' fears that volunteers will help farmworkers get organized, or form unions. Zucker notes it's an industry with a pattern of exploitation. "There can often be a greater concern for the safety of the crops than the safety of the workers," he says.