Ricardo Sotelo called his wife, Lupita, three times on June 30, 2015. He repeated the same message at 10 a.m., noon and 3 p.m.: “I don’t feel good. I really don’t feel good.”
They were both working Olsen Brothers Farms in eastern Washington – Lupita in the warehouse, and Ricardo picking blueberries in the scorching sun. Temperatures topped 107 degrees that day, and Lupita recalls there was no shade or water in sight.
At home by 5 p.m., Ricardo clutched his chest and complained of a severe headache. Worried, his 15-year-old daughter rushed him to the hospital. By 6 p.m. he was dead. The cause: heatstroke.
“I never thought, coming from Mexico, that this would happen in the United States, that my husband would die at work,” Lupita said through a translator, explaining that she and Ricardo had come to America from Sonora in 2011 in search of a better life.
But for thousands of farmworkers, extreme temperatures – as evidenced in intense heat waves gripping the U.S. this summer – pose an increasing threat, particularly as climate change warms the planet at a rapid rate.
A deadly and record-breaking heat wave in parts of the Western U.S. and Canada this summer would have been “virtually impossible” without the influence of climate change, according to a study by leading scientists, who said global warming made the intense temperatures at least 150 times more likely to occur.
Just 3 states have protective rules in place
Farmworkers, most of them immigrants, some documented and some not, are responsible for the lush spreads that adorn most Americans tables: They pick blueberries and cherries in Washington, figs and olives in California, citrus in Florida, peaches, plums and apples in Texas.
That fragrant fir decorating your living room every December likely arrived because of a farmworker in Oregon, the nation’s main producer of Christmas trees.
But farmworkers feed Americans often without any sort of protections from the American government. Just three states – California, Washington and Minnesota – have permanent rules and regulations that protect farmworkers from extreme heat.
When a heat wave suffocated the Pacific Northwest and temperatures soared to 117 degrees two weeks ago in Oregon, Sebastian Francisco Perez, a farmworker who had just arrived from Guatemala, died in St. Paul, 30 miles south of Portland. He was only 38.
As extreme temperatures and weather events become more common – often forcing workers to complete tasks in the hottest part of the day – advocates and sympathetic lawmakers worry about the future of farmworking in America. Will regulation and enforcement keep pace with climate change? Or will debates about the validity of science continue to put lives at risk?
Lorena González, 44, president of Seattle’s city council and a candidate for Seattle mayor, spent her childhood in central Washington picking cherries with her migrant family, earning her first paycheck at 8.
She still remembers the crippling heat, the layers of clothing worn to protect her skin from sunburns, the gallons of water they carried to every tree. She knows firsthand the risks farmworkers face every day and what could happen if local and federal regulations aren’t passed soon.
“It is a danger that our legislatures are stuck in their status quo of ‘legislate as usual,’” González said. “When you’re in the midst of a crisis, which is what climate change is, you have to figure out how to adapt your governance model in order to respond to the emerging need that’s before you.
“It’s just outrageous … there are thousands and thousands of people who work outside every day who are bearing the brunt of our inaction.”
Farmworker life expectancy: 49 years
On June 28, as temperatures skyrocketed to 117 degrees in the Willamette Valley, threatening Oregon’s all-time high of 119, Reyna Lopez told USA TODAY something catastrophic could happen.
Lopez, executive director of Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Oregon’s largest farmworkers union, already had started to hear whispers that the heat had turned deadly. By Tuesday she had confirmation, when news broke about Perez.
At the time of his death, Oregon had no heat-related rules to protect farmworkers. Initially expected in 2020, heat-related rules were delayed when COVID-19 hit. Lopez called the COVID-19 reasoning “a cop-out,” pointing out that farmworkers continued to labor through the pandemic, enduring historic heat waves, wildfire smoke that destroyed air quality and an ice storm in January.
Video: Heat Wave More Severe Due to Climate Change, Science Shows (Bloomberg)
On July 8, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, in conjunction with Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), announced emergency heat rules, which require access to shade and cold water and, when temperatures hit 90 degrees, 10-minute breaks every two hours. Her office told USA TODAY that permeant rules are expected “by the fall” but didn’t give a specific date.
Washington followed suit the next day, announcing expanded heat exposure protections – including paid breaks – that enhance the laws already in place. Gov. Jay Inslee, one of the nation’s leading voices on climate change, acknowledged the need for updated regulations in a statement: “Our state has rules in place to ensure these risks are mitigated, however, the real impacts of climate change have changed conditions since those rules were first written and we are responding.”
Neither state has rules that workers be sent home if temperatures reach a certain high.
That could be problematic, according to Kristie Ebi, a professor at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the University of Washington. Ebi has worked on issues of climate change and health for 25 years and says temperatures don’t have to reach 115 degrees to do long-term damage to the human body.
Multiple studies have shown that prolonged exposure to high temperatures can ravage a person’s kidneys. Some of the world’s hottest regions, including Sri Lanka and Central America, where farmworking is common, have experienced a spike in kidney disease, which can lead to death.
“I’m more concerned about the next decade or two than I am about the middle of the century,” Ebi said. “We are so unprepared. Temperatures will be higher midcentury, yes, and we’ll have even longer, more intense heat waves than we’re having now, and how intense will depend on our greenhouse gas emissions.
“But it’s the short term we need to think about. How can we start investing in critical infrastructure that people need right now to be prepared for the climate change that’s already happening?”
U.S. senators propose protections
In March, a group of U.S. senators introduced the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act. In 2004, Valdivia died of heatstroke in California after picking grapes in 105 degrees for 10 hours. When Valdivia fell ill, his employer declined to call an ambulance and told Valdivia’s son to drive him to the ER instead. During the drive Valdivia, then 53, started foaming at the mouth. He died before he reached the hospital.
Organizations such as United Farm Workers, headquartered in California and the nation’s largest farmworking union, have lobbied strongly for the bill and have testified in front of Congress about the risks farmworkers face working in the heat. The bill has not been brought to the floor for a vote.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., a co-sponsor of that bill, told USA TODAY in an email that he was “deeply saddened” by the death of Perez and that it was “a stark reminder that as climate chaos progresses, those who will pay the steepest costs will often be the most vulnerable in society … we can and must do more to ensure farmworkers receive every necessary protection from extreme heat.”
Merkley is also bullish about the need to protect farmworkers from wildfire smoke. He has pushed for legislation that would do exactly that, introducing the Farmworker Smoke Protection Act with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in 2019. Merkley said he plans to introduce an updated version of that legislation in the coming weeks.
At PCUN, Lopez was frustrated and surprised to see that Oregon’s emergency heat rules didn’t include anything for smoke, despite a historic drought in 2021 that’s likely to lead to another brutal fire season in the West. Lopez wants those rules now, not after wildfire smoke chokes anyone who steps outside to work.
California has smoke-related rules, but Ira Cuello-Martinez, PCUN’s climate policy associate – a position the organization recently added because climate change has become such a crucial piece of protecting farmworkers – said the California rules should not be the standard.
According to the California OSHA website, smoke-related rules are based on the Air Quality Index. When AQI hits 151, which is officially considered “unhealthy,” employers must provide workers with respirators, like N-95 masks, and encourage their use. When the AQI hits 500, employers must require use of respirators even though at 301 AQI and higher, air is considered hazardous.
And there’s nothing that says when AQI hits a certain number – the scale goes only to 500 – work should be suspended for the day.
“That was a mistake on Cal OSHA’s end – that’s unbearably unhealthy,” Cuello-Martinez said, expressing worry that Oregon might adopt similar guidelines. “No one should be outside in those conditions.”
Last summer when COVID-19 shuttered numerous restaurants, the only work available to many immigrants was in the fields. Workers told Cuello-Martinez about wildfire smoke so bad it stung their eyes and made them unable to see, how they got so nauseous they couldn’t stop vomiting. They were worried about working in hazardous conditions, but they didn’t have any choice.
Cuello-Martinez is concerned about the government’s ability to keep pace with climate change and adjust rules as more data becomes available about the long-term effect of working in extreme heat or smoky conditions.
“We don’t want life expectancy to continue decreasing,” he said.
‘A life of sacrifice so Americans can eat’
Along with rules based in science, Lopez and Cuello-Martinez want disaster pay for farmworkers so that if conditions are hazardous for any reason, farmworkers could stay home and not suffer financially. They say rules about air conditioning in employer-provided housing – PCUN estimates that about 9,000 of Oregon’s 87,000 field workers and hand harvesters live in employer-provided housing – need to be adopted immediately.
Lopez, Cuello-Martinez and other farmworking advocates worry that climate-related deaths among farmworkers are severely underreported.
“I think about it every day,” Lopez said. “There are people in the deepest, darkest corners of rural Oregon that I have no idea about – and I guarantee you that there were multiple people who died (because of the heat) that we don’t know about.”
For Lopez, the fight feels personal. When she heard about Perez’s death, she thought about how it could have been her mother, her father, her uncle or aunt or brother or sister.
“From the moment farmworkers leave their country due to economic hardship and come work in the fields, they’re living a life of sacrifice so Americans can eat,” Lopez said.
It’s a truth Sotelo knows too well.
Now 50, Sotelo doesn’t think her body can handle working outside much longer. The farm she works at now is better though, she said: Her supervisor checks in on workers regularly, making sure they have water and take breaks in shade. When temperatures hit 91 last week, the farm called it a day and sent everyone home around 1 p.m.
This has been the hottest year she has experienced in the decade she has been in the U.S., Sotelo said. And though she said she will “never get over the pain of losing my husband,” she could not mourn forever. So she’ll continue to pick blueberries and cherries, doing her part to feed America.
Working in the fields is “the only option we have,” she said in Spanish. “We have to pay bills, too.”
Follow national correspondent Lindsay Schnell on Twitter at @Lindsay_Schnell
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘We are so unprepared’: Extreme heat fueled by climate change putting farmworkers’ lives on the line