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Farm Workers Face Double Threat: Wildfire Smoke And COVID-19


Farmworkers do not have the option to work from home. In California, they face the elements - not just COVID-19, but also record heat and wildfires. Erika Mahoney of KAZU reports from a strawberry field in Salinas, Calif.

ERIKA MAHONEY, BYLINE: A farmworker swiftly picks a row of strawberries. He tosses to the ground the bruised berries that won't sell, the others into their plastic clamshells. The air quality is better on this day, but just a few weeks ago, the sun glowed orange and ash fell from the sky after a wildfire erupted nearby. Jesus Ahumada, the ag foreman, says the smoke was so thick in mid-August that it hurt the crew's sinuses.

JESUS AHUMADA: (Speaking Spanish).

MAHONEY: "We stop for our safety," he says. "We had to stop for one day." And that wasn't an easy call. He's in charge of 65 people who are paid more money the more they pick.

CAROLINE KENNEDY: It's been a tremendously difficult year.

MAHONEY: Dr. Caroline Kennedy cares for farmworkers. She directs nine clinics in Monterey County, where agriculture is a leading industry.

KENNEDY: Do you stay home when the air quality doesn't make you feel well, or do you just go back to work?

MAHONEY: These farmworkers, who are predominantly Latino, feed the world, yet they're struggling to feed their own families, and they've been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. In Monterey County alone, more than 70% of cases are among Latinos.

KENNEDY: Often, they go back to very congested living situations, and everyone in the family is infected.

MAHONEY: COVID-19 patients tell Kennedy they just can't take a deep breath. That's compounded by wildfire smoke. Under a California regulation that took effect last year, employers must provide proper masks to outdoor workers when air quality degrades to a certain level. Whether or not the workers are required to actually put on the mask depends on how bad the air quality is. The messaging is confusing, says Richard Stedman, who runs the regional Air Resources District. When the air is bad, the general public is told to stay indoors.

RICHARD STEDMAN: So when I see workers being advised that they can go out into the field and exert themselves, as long as they have in their possession a mask, that's not very protective.

MAHONEY: The United Farm Workers says even so, enforcement of the regulation is a problem. Armando Elenes is with the UFW.

ARMANDO ELENES: I mean, the vast majority of farmworkers were not provided or have not been provided N-95 masks.

MAHONEY: UFW conducted a statewide poll in August to get a better understanding of the situation. Workers told Elenes their eyes felt like they were burning.

ELENES: But, you know, they were - unfortunately, they were more worried about, you know, trying to make ends meet and trying to pay the rent.

MAHONEY: With multiple wildfires in California and a pandemic that's making N-95s hard to find, the state answered calls for help and shipped around 1.4 million masks to counties throughout the state. Henry Gonzales, the agricultural commissioner for Monterey County, says he's received over 330,000.

HENRY GONZALES: Those were, I think, really a godsend that we were able to get those considering their scarcity.

MAHONEY: Back at the strawberry field in Salinas, Gonzales watches workers snap close the fruit containers. He says showing up to this job can be a risk, but the produce can't wait.

GONZALES: They're ready when they're ready, and if you're not there to harvest them, they're going to go to waste.

MAHONEY: Which means less money for companies, smaller paychecks for farmworkers and fewer strawberries in grocery carts, losses that might be necessary to protect farmworkers' health.

For NPR News, I'm Erika Mahoney in Salinas, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erika joined KAZU in 2016. Her roots in radio began at an early age working for the independent community radio station in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. After graduating from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 2012, Erika spent four years working as a television reporter. She’s very happy to be back in public radio and loves living in the Monterey Bay Area.