With heat rules adopted, farmworker advocates seek more change
A day after Oregon workplace regulators adopted temporary rules to protect workers from extreme heat hazards, Sandra Martin was glad the temperature in Forest Grove wasn't expected to top 90 degrees.
Less than two weeks earlier, when the temperature reached a record-breaking 116 degrees in Portland, her husband was sent home early from the nursery where he works, because farmworkers there reported having trouble breathing and being exhausted from the heat.
With the temporary rules in place, workers' rights advocates are turning their attention back to longer-term goals to improve the conditions of some of the most vulnerable and critical workers in our food system.
The new rules, which were adopted by the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Thursday, July 8, came after extensive lobbying from workers' rights groups following the death of Sebastian Francisco Perez.
Perez was a farmworker in Marion County who died on the job during the heatwave last month.
The rules require farm owners to provide access to shade and drinking water for workers when the heat index is at or above 80 degrees.
When the heat index is above 90 degrees, farm owners must have an emergency medical plan in place describing procedures to be followed if a heat illness happens.
Employers must also develop and implement effective acclimatization practices.
Additionally, the rules call for employers to ensure that employees exposed to such conditions have training on heat-related illness and how to prevent it by Aug. 1.
OSHA is in the process of drafting permanent rules, which are expected to be finalized this fall, to protect workers from exposure to both excessive heat and wildfire smoke.
But advocates say there's still a lot that needs to be changed to improve conditions for farmworkers, who often lack access to healthcare and work for the minimum wage or are paid by how much they pick.
One goal of advocates has long been to increase the wages of farmworkers and require overtime pay.
When temperatures are extreme, farmworkers are forced to choose between their health and putting food on the table, Martin said.
"He's one those people that says, 'There's work. I have to go in and just see how long I can last,'" she said of her husband through a Spanish interpreter.
Martin, a Guatemalan immigrant who has lived in the United States for four years, lives with her husband and two teenage daughters in an affordable housing apartment complex owned by the Washington County-based nonprofit Bienestar.
Martin says nearly all of the people in her apartment complex are farmworkers or family members of farmworkers.
She's part of Bienestar's "promotores" program, helping people in her community access resources and advocate for the rights of immigrants, many of whom are farmworkers.
Part of why Martin's husband feels like he needs to work through extreme temperatures is that his income was significantly reduced after he lost his job last year working at a different nursery, she said. After working at that nursery for five years, he was among the last workers to be let go due to the economic impacts of the pandemic, Martin said.
Additionally, his current job is only temporary, she said, which makes him feel like he needs to earn as much as possible before the position ends this winter and he is forced to look for other work.
The likelihood of more days of extreme heat later this summer also makes Martin worried, because her husband is 63 years old. Older adults are typically more prone to heat exhaustion, as their bodies cannot cool themselves as efficiently as those of younger adults.
After 40 years of agricultural work and the toll of the pandemic, Martin says her husband has been feeling exhausted lately.
Martin said she told her husband that if he's at work and starts to feel ill he needs to stop and come home.
But she's still worried that the pressure he feels to provide will prevent him from stopping.
"Farmworkers and all working people need a living wage," said Parker Berger, operations manager at the Hillsboro-based Western Farm Workers Association, in an email.
Berger's organization helps farmworkers struggling with poverty access basic resources such as food, clothing and medical care and advocates for solutions to the root cause of poverty among farmworkers.
"This heat wave, which resulted in one of the worst tragedies in Oregon history, is a call to action," Berger said, referring to the more than 100 deaths attributed to the extreme heat. "Climate change-induced extreme weather impacts the poor first and hardest. Their choices are to either continue working in this dangerous heat, which as we have seen is deadly, or if they choose not to work, they will have no income for the lost hours.
"That is not a choice any working family should face."
A bill proposed in the Oregon State House of Representatives earlier this year would have required employers to pay farmworkers overtime. House Bill 2358 didn't end up going to a vote.
Some groups, including Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), a statewide farmworkers union, want Oregon to set up a fund to help compensate farmworkers who miss work due to extreme heat or wildfire smoke.
Last week, after the temporary rules related to extreme heat were implemented, PCUN officials praised the protective action — but added there's more work to be done.
"It's crucial that we continue to take steps towards long-term policy shifts in our state that take climate change, and workers' safety seriously," said Reyna Lopez, director of PCUN. "That means creating standards that keep people safe, while engaging stakeholders is climate policy that will allow our communities to be healthy and thrive in the long term."
PCUN officials also worried about how the new rules will be enforced, saying they plan to work to inform workers of their rights.
Martin said while her husband's employer already provided some of the provisions contained in the new rules, he doesn't feel like he can advocate for better working conditions or report concerns.
She said many farmworkers aren't confident their immediate supervisors relay messages from farmworkers to their employers, because they don't want to jeopardize their own standing with the farm owner.
"One of the changes that he would like to see is for their voices to be heard," Martin said of her husband.
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