In-depth report by Korina Lopez and Ramona du Houx
September 28, 2020
The California Latino community has been disproportionately infected by the coronavirus. Latinos make up 39 percent of the population in the state, but account for 56 percent of COVID-19 infections and 46 percent of deaths, according to the California Health and Human Services secretary, Dr. Mark Ghaly. That’s three times the rate as Whites. State officials say, many employers have not reliably provided protective equipment to workers or implemented social distancing or mask wearing rules. This is systemic racism.
Elected Officials to Protect California (EOPCA) insists that the Latino community should not have to suffer in toxic work environments and live in areas of environmental injustice.
Latinos are America’s lower paid essential workers. From grocery store workers, to healthcare technicians, firefighters, transportation workers, maids, janitors and agricultural workers. In order to keep their families from financial ruin most have to continue to work, they don’t have the luxury of choosing to work from home. They work in jobs where social distancing is not a practical option. They live in homes that often are packed with family, and extended family.
Too often, these essential workers live in neighborhoods that are located near oil industry operations in California, one of America’s top crude oil and gas producing states. More than 5.4 million Californians live less than a mile from an active oil well and many suffer from chronic asthma, lung disease, cancer and lifelong illnesses. That represents 3.7 million, or 69 percent, are people of color with Latinos being the vast 64 percent majority.
“Governor Newsom spoke forcefully about the need to fight systemic racism in California. It is time for him to turn those words into action. More than 12,000 Californians die from the oil industry’s air pollution annually. Enough is enough. This is no way to power our society. We must value life over corporate gains. The public’s health and safety should be what guides political decisions, not the oil industry’s bottom line,” said San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon.
As Americans sit down to dinner the likelihood is they will be eating vegetables harvested by essential Latino farmworkers. California is the largest food producer in the United States.
More than a third of the country’s vegetables and at least two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts are grown in California.
The San Joaquin Valley is an industrial farmland between the Pacific Coast ranges and the Sierra Nevadas. Table grapes, wine grapes, watermelons, carrots, almonds, walnuts and blueberries are some of the major crops grown in this region.
Hundreds of thousands of men and women have been harvesting and packing produce for the nation here, in triple digits temperatures for days at a time. While California stipulates that state employers must provide shade, and drinking water the law doesn’t designate a temperature mandate to stop work. The fewer hours you work, the less you make. Workers, like wine grape pickers, are paid by how much they harvest. Most agricultural workers are Mexican immigrants without health insurance, earning minimum wage. Though deemed essential, many of the valley’s more than 420,000 farmworkers don’t qualify for unemployment.
“When I immigrated, I worked in the fields. I was nauseous, had headaches and worked under all conditions. We had to — in order to survive. I’ve been fortunate. Many never leave these farms, said Felipe Perez, Firebaugh City former mayor, current councilmember. “I believe the governor is a good man. He knows people shouldn’t have to live in areas where toxic pollutants from the oil industry fills their lungs on a daily basis, creating health issues, and tragically deaths. He needs to establish safety setback zones between oil/gas wells and where people interact, and live. He needs to stop issuing any permits for fossil fuel operations and transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy, now. These actions will start to right these injustices, as Latinos will be able to breathe cleaner air and live longer.”
Newsom’s recent executive order mentions these issues, but not with any urgency applied to them.
“You said we are in a climate emergency, caused by fossil fuels. People are dying from these oil operations, governor. Please issue substantial executive orders to address our concerns and, at the same time, show you really do care about doing something to help racial injustice,” added Perez.
The coronavirus infection rates in the valley are among the highest in California. The apocalyptic fires can cripple the repository system and lead to infections, making people exposed to the fire’s smoke more susceptible to contracting the pandemic. A Harvard study found that long term exposure to PM 2.5, a potent aerosol pollutant, can lead to an eight percent increase in probability for coronavirus infection.
A Stanford scientific paper concluded that the climate crisis had doubled the frequency of extreme fire weather days since the 1980s.
When the wind blows from the north and south smoke becomes trapped and surrounds farmworkers. But it’s not just the smoke agricultural workers breath, it’s air that has already been mixed with pollution from oil wells, chemicals sprayed on the fields and emissions from thousands of truck tailpipes. Trucks come and go all the time to ensure the produce is fresh in supermarkets across the nation. The valley’s southernmost stretch, Kern County, is where the majority of oil operations are located. Farm workers are visible harvesting with drills behind them.
“Pesticide drift is not something that happens sometimes — it’s an issue for farmworkers every day,” said Suguet López, executive director of Líderes Campesinas, a statewide organization led by female farmworkers. The "drifts" happen depending on the air flow. “Farmworkers experience some 20,000 pesticide poisonings each year, partly because of the lack of safety training and standards, protective equipment, or knowledge about workplace chemicals,” added López.
Climate change has made summer days hotter than they were a century ago and heat waves frequent. The nights are warming faster not giving the body enough time to cool down after spending the day in the desert like heat. Hotter nighttime temperatures cause the most disastrous fires to stay active overnight.
Climate-related changes in precipitation patterns are causing drier autumns, resulting in a full-year fire season. This longer fire season is more intense. Some areas of the valley are amidst a prolonged drought, but many workers don’t have access to clean water. Yet water for agriculture is used to irrigate more than 9 million acres of cropland annually and is responsible for close to 60 percent of total water consumption. Industrial farms use the majority.
This year, while the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District urged residents to stay indoors, most farm workers chose to continue to work. Many fell ill with chest pains, dehydration, stomach aches, headaches, and coughs. In some incidences they get Valley Fever, a repertory condition caused by soil fungus, which symptoms are hauntingly similar to COVID-19. Too many can’t afford to take a day off.
Seasonal work forces the laborers to rely on what they make for the entire year. If they don’t work now, harvesting food for the nation, they risk going hungry and homeless. According to a New York Times article, rates of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are high and kidney functions decline with prolonged dehydration among many agricultural workers.
These workers are put in dangerous situations with minimal assistance. About 90 percent of farmworkers in California are Latino, but 60 percent are unauthorized to legally work in the U.S., according to a recent farmworker research study. Many are undocumented and live in fear, exasperated under Trump’s policies, of deportation or being dismissed from their job with no just cause. They aren’t likely to complain or ask for help.
In May, 44 employees of the Calavo Growers packinghouse in Ventura County tested positive. In Come June in Oxnard, 188 more farmworkers tested positive. These workers were temporary employees brought to the United States on H-2A visas to address labor shortages, because of the pandemic. They slept five to a room in farmworker housing, a basic petri dish that spread COVID-19.
“All over this country, ineffective laws and lack of enforcement allow exploitation and suffering for thousands of Latino workers. The immigrant community lives in fear of COVID-19, while they are harvesting and preparing food for us. When they get sick more workers are brought in but aren’t given adequate pandemic safety measures either. All of us as well as employers must value the lives of their workers,” said Oxnard Mayor Pro Tem Carmen Ramirez, Esq,. “I know the Governor understands how systemic racism is destructive to individuals and our society and hurts California. What I want to see is the Governor taking immediate action to start phasing out fossil fuel operations. There is no doubt that these emissions have damaged the health of too many Latinos, and destroyed their dreams. This is an urgent matter, Governor. Please declare a state of emergency for the climate crisis and take necessary action, before it’s too late.”
Since the immigrant housing incident Governor Newsom started the Housing for the Harvest program to provide hotel rooms for agricultural workers who test positive or were exposed to the virus so they can safely isolate. While he issued some financial relief back in the spring, many Latinos were too afraid to claim it.
At the beginning of August more than 40 prominent Latino leaders in the valley wrote to the governor asking for financial relief and resources to farmworkers. “There is no reason that if a farmworker gets sick, that they should lose their house and should not have food to eat,” said Fresno City Councilmember Esmeralda Soria, co-author of the letter.
COVID-19 cases still continue to mount among agricultural and Latino communities in disproportionate numbers across the state. In Monterey County Latinos make up 93 percent of cases but are just 61 percent of the population. The area is known as the “Salad Bowl Capitol” of the world.
Lawmakers took up relief measures for farmworkers in April, and passed The Farmworker Relief Package in late August. The governor signed it on September 28. The legislation would protect the health and safety of farmworkers, provide services and prevent disruptions to the nation's food supply. “Clearly this has threatened California's most vulnerable workers, it has threatened their families and in an industry that is vital not only in California, but in the U.S. and globally,” said Assemblymember Robert Rivas.
Agricultural workers were toiling in extreme conditions without a pandemic, heatwaves or fires. During the fires they continued to work, while others were being evacuated.
“While I applaud the passage of The Farmworker Relief Package, the fact this took almost five months to pass during emergency conditions where farmer workers needed immediate action deeply hurts. Too many souls have been lost in those five months,” said Felipe Perez, Firebaugh City councilmember. “The law doesn’t address the systemic racism that continues to plague our communities. It doesn’t address the pollution that rains down on the fields making people sick, robbing children of their futures and family members. It doesn’t address the inequality of the educational system where one’s zip code is too determinative. My community toils under conditions that would make many people give up. They get sick from airborne toxins from the oil and agricultural industry, and have little access to healthcare. We take pride in our work to feed America, all we ask for is respect under the law, true equality, our health and a chance to live without the stress of existing paycheck to paycheck.”
A 2019 California state audit of Ventura, Butte, and Sonoma counties assessed how prepared each county was to protect vulnerable populations before, during, and after a natural disaster. The auditor found that emergency officials overlook vulnerable populations by failing to adequately implement best practices. For example, during the 2018 Camp Fire, the 2017 Sonoma Complex fires, and the 2017 Thomas Fire, none of the three counties sent evacuation notices in languages other than English.
How the Latino community has worked throughout this pandemic is a lesson to America in honesty, integrity, responsibility and how dedicated this community is to family. California must respond swiftly to rectify the harms exacted by Coronavirus and environmental injustice on minority communities.