[News] In California’s Wine Country, Undocumented Grape Pickers Forced to Work in Fire Evacuation Zones

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Sun Sep 6 11:41:38 EDT 2020

California’s Wine Country, Undocumented Grape Pickers Forced to Work in
Fire Evacuation Zones
Alleen Brown - September 6, 2020

*As wildfire smoke* billowed into the wine-producing region of Sonoma
County, California, workers continued harvesting grapes, day and night.
Even in evacuation zones, where the safety threat from flames was severe
enough for officials to ask residents to leave the area, the county
agriculture commissioner invited workers to continue laboring in the
fields, doling out evacuation-area access passes
to dozens of agricultural producers. With undocumented immigrants — many of
them workers from Latin American Indigenous communities — already
economically drained after surviving months of the pandemic with virtually
no government support, workers were in no position to decline an offer for

For the workers, their hands were forced by a combination of circumstances
as toxic as the ash that falls over the region’s famous vineyards: the
economic drive to keep the wine industry going; the lack of resources for
non-Spanish-speaking workers; a near-total dearth of economic support; the
economic stresses of the coronavirus pandemic; and a climate of fear around
immigration enforcement that prevents the workers from asking for help.

What’s needed more than anything, advocates say, is an economic safety net
in times of disaster so that people don’t have to accept perilous work and
changes to immigration laws, so they don’t have to fear offers of help.

“We work when there are rains, we work when there is fire, we work in
whatever conditions. There is no resource we can count on, so there’s
nothing left but to work.”

“We work when there are rains, we work when there is fire, we work in
whatever conditions. It isn’t the most viable, but it is a necessity to
provide for our families here or the parts of our families that stayed in
our place of origin,” said Gervacio Peña Lopez, a board member of the local
Indigenous workers’ group Movimiento Cultural de la Unión Indígena, who is
Mixtec and worked in the fields for years. “There is no resource we can
count on, so there’s nothing left but to work.”

Officials that regulate evacuation order exemptions have close
relationships to agricultural associations that serve local business
owners’ interests. Over four years of massive wildfires, the wine region’s
agricultural commissioners worked closely with the Sonoma County Farm
Bureau and Sonoma County Winegrowers to repeatedly grant permission to
growers to harvest in wildfire-evacuation zones. Smoke from wildfires can
damage the delicate flavor of the region’s world-famous wines. The threat
of deep financial losses creates a pressing incentive to harvest as quickly
as possible, even when fire and smoke risk damage to lungs — and especially
during a year when yields are expected to be lower than usual and the
pandemic cut down restaurant sales.

During the Walbridge and Meyers wildfires this year, Sonoma County provided
access certifications to 375 employers, county communications manager Paul
Gullixson told The Intercept. However, he added, “Not all of those property
owners, farmers, workers, and vineyard owners ultimately were allowed
access to their property.”

Although Sonoma County, like many other counties, has a process for
permitting agriculture workers to enter evacuation area fields, “the
ultimate decision-making authority concerning when and where property
owners are allowed access rests with Cal Fire and other fire officials as
well as the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, CHP” — California Highway
Patrol — “and other law enforcement officials who determine whether going
back inside evacuated areas is safe,” Gullixson said. “No one will be
allowed to go inside evacuated areas if there is a real and present fire
risk — regardless of what certification they may have in their possession.”

Asked why such access would be allowed, he said the reasons are varied:
dairy cows whose health will be put at risk if they’re not milked, for
instance, or irrigation systems and crops that need checking up on. “This
is true of vineyard owners and managers who sometimes seek permission to
access vineyards in evacuated areas — when it’s safe to do so — to harvest
grapes,” Gullixson said.

He pointed to a temporary emergency regulation that requires employers to
provide N95 masks and training to workers when the air quality is bad.
California farm and growers associations, however, have fought efforts to
enact a stronger, permanent regulation.

The situation would be worrisome in good times, but Latinx residents of the
county have been hit harder than other demographic groups by the pandemic.
Half of the confirmed Covid-19 cases
in Sonoma County have been Latinx patients, although they represent only 25
percent of the population. The tally leaves invisible the impact to the
county’s Indigenous immigrant population, many of whom do not speak Spanish
and have distinct cultural practices and needs, like the Triqui population
in Sonoma County, which mostly hails from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, and
the Mixtec community, also from southern Mexico.

Members of Peña Lopez’s organization, who provide some of the only
culturally specific services in the area, fear that the effect of wildfire
smoke on their community members’ lungs will deepen their vulnerability to

What happens in California, which has passed some of the only
labor rules in the U.S. around extreme heat and wildfire smoke, will likely
be mimicked across the country, as state and federal legislators grapple
with the impacts of increasingly severe fires, floods, and heat. But far
more than masks rules will be needed to protect workers in wildfire zones.

[image: The War on Immigrants]

Over the past year, the environmental movement and Democratic Party
politicians have given increasing lip service to the concept of
“environmental justice,” promising to prioritize protecting the nation’s
most vulnerable people. The conditions for Sonoma County’s grape harvesters
reveal the crowded intersection of problems that a meaningful climate
justice agenda would have to take on: from immigrant rights to worker
protections to altered land-use planning.

In California and across the U.S., a dearth of public supports designed for
undocumented immigrants confronting increasingly common natural disasters
will inevitably deepen already desperate economic situations. With their
own labor as the only resource available to countless people, the pool of
workers willing to take on unsafe jobs will only expand. So long as
government officials continue to prioritize the needs of business owners
also hurt by disasters, workers are likely to find themselves in
increasingly dangerous situations.

This summer, the immigrant workers toiling in Sonoma County’s smoke-filled
vineyards were the epitome of these dangers.

[image: Smoke hangs over the Fieldstone Winery vineyard along Hwy. 128
after the Kincade Fire in Healdsburg, Calif., on Oct. 28, 2019.]

Smoke hangs over the Fieldstone Winery vineyard along Highway 128 after the
Kincade Fire in Healdsburg, Calif., on Oct. 28, 2019.

Photo: Jane Tyska/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images
A Public-Private Collaboration

This isn’t the first round of wildfires Sonoma workers have endured. The
Tubbs fire, which for a single year was the most destructive fire in
California history before being overshadowed by the Camp fire
tore through the county in 2017, followed by the Kincade fire in 2019. The
increasingly severe wildfires and the dry conditions that have helped drive
them are consistent with scientists’ expectations for the effects of
climate change.

During those past fires, as now, workers were allowed to enter evacuation
zones to conduct “critical functions,” including, “harvesting, feeding and
watering livestock, managing fermentations, and irrigating nursery crops,”
according to a December 2019 post
by then-Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar.

Working with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection,
California Highway Patrol, and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, the
agricultural commission issued evacuation zone entry permits to 280 groups
of people in 2017 and 67 in 2019, Linegar wrote. But industry groups also
played a key role: The Farm Bureau and Sonoma Winegrowers acted as a
“clearinghouse for all of the access requests,” the agricultural
commissioner added. “I was literally in constant contact with them day and
night throughout the event.”

Linegar noted that a statewide protocol is needed for future fires and
argued that the process must include the California State Sheriff’s
Association, Agricultural Commissioner representatives, and California Farm
Bureau Federation. He did not mention workers’ groups, like Movimiento
Cultural de la Unión Indígena.

Worker organizations are pushing on their own for a regulation that will at
least make clear that outdoor labor should only be authorized in wildfire
zones by the authority that ordered the evacuation, typically CalFire and
local law enforcement. If workers are allowed into such areas, employers
should create an evacuation plan. “We were very concerned whether workers
were taken in and left without a form of transportation to get out
quickly,” said Anne Katten, pesticide and work safety project director for
the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

“We were very concerned whether workers were taken in and left without a
form of transportation to get out quickly.”

Nearly a year after Linegar’s post, the California Department of Forestry
and Fire Protection, known as CalFire, confirmed that fire officials and
local law enforcement across the state still grant permissions on a
“case-by-case basis.”

Sonoma County Winegrowers President Karissa Kruse denied playing a deciding
role in access permissions. “While we are a liaison between local farmers
and a variety of governmental agencies, including CalFire, the county ag
commissioner, the county sheriff’s office, and others, we have no ability
to grant access to a disaster area. That permission can only be provided by
the sheriff’s office,” she told The Intercept. The sheriff’s office
referred all questions about evacuation area access to the county
agriculture department. The Sonoma County Farm Bureau also did not respond
to queries.

“In Sonoma County, our local farmers care about their employees. Many of
the men and women employed by our farms have become like family, working
with their respective farming families for decades,” Kruse told The
Intercept. “Safety and health have been and remain a top priority during
harvest and throughout the year.”

Yet in the midst of yet another devastating fire season, no clear protocol
for granting evacuation area access yet exists. Only in the past week did
workers’ organizations obtain a meeting with the county to discuss worker
safety in evacuation zones. And advocates say another regulation that has
emerged does not match federal public health guidelines and has confronted
pushback from growers.
Insufficient Regulations for Work in Smoke

In the wake of past fires, California became the only state in the U.S. to
create a worker safety standard designed specifically for wildfire smoke,
according to the Environmental Protection Agency. After the Tubbs fire,
worker advocates with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and
other groups began pushing for worker protections when the air quality is
low. The result was a temporary emergency order passed in the summer of
2019. It requires employers to determine the air quality at the beginning
of each shift. If the air is bad, they must first attempt to take measures
to avoid smoke, like moving to a less smoky location or scheduling work at
times of day that are less hazardous. If they can’t escape the bad air,
they must offer workers N95 masks and training on how to use them

The regulations, however, are insufficient, advocates say. For one, the
protections are triggered too late, leaving many people laboring in
unhealthy air without any required precautions.

The rule is based on what is known as the Air Quality Index, the EPA’s
system for measuring the concentration of tiny particulate matter in the
air. Particulate matter measuring 2.5 micrometers or smaller worries health
professionals most. If inhaled, it can irritate the lungs and lead to
diseases. One recent study
indicated that Montana communities had flu rates three to five times higher
than usual after they were hit by wildfires. “It makes you a whole lot more
susceptible to all sorts of things,” said Kent Pinkerton, director of the
Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety at the University of
California, Davis. “Covid-19 would be an immediate concern.”

Any AQI reading above 100 means the air is “unhealthy for sensitive
groups,” while 151 is simply “unhealthy.” A reading above 300 is considered
“hazardous.” Under the California regulation
masks don’t have to be offered until the index hits 151, and they’re not
required unless it exceeds 500.

That’s why the regulations fall short of needs, advocates say. Most, if not
all, of California’s agricultural workforce qualify as “sensitive,”
according to the EPA’s definitions. A 2019 agency report
“Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Health Officials,” defines “sensitive
groups” as including people of a “low socioeconomic status,” a composite
measure that includes educational attainment, household income, percentage
of the population in poverty, race and ethnicity, and location of
residence. The limited access to health care that frequently accompanies
“low socioeconomic status” means that underlying problems may go
undiagnosed or untreated, the guide notes. Combined with a lowered ability
to take measures that can reduce smoke exposure, such as closing windows
and using an air conditioner to manage high heat, such groups are left
“more likely to be adversely affected and less likely to recover,” the EPA
says. What’s more, outdoor workers in general are considered a sensitive
population, and workers with underlying conditions like asthma or diabetes
are unlikely to notify their employers.

At an AQI reading of 101, the air tends to look hazy, and sensitive groups
are advised to “avoid physical exertion” and “limit time spent outdoors.”
That’s when workers should have access to masks, said Pinkerton. At 151,
the air begins to resemble a fog. “Really, at 150, no one should be
working,” he said, adding that, at those levels, “the N95 masks — even the
ones properly fitted — will eventually clog up and no longer be effective
and actually cause labored breathing. An N95 properly fitted probably only
is good for a couple hours.”

Meanwhile, Pinkerton said, the regulation’s upper limit is meaningless. An
AQI of 501 is a condition so smoky, only firefighters might encounter it:
“If the AQI goes above 200, absolutely no workers should be in the field.”

Advocates are pushing for masks to be offered at AQI 101 and required at
301, but a coalition
of business associations, including the California Association of Winegrape
Growers, the California Farm Bureau Federation, the Wine Institute, and
more than two-dozen other groups, has pushed back. In comments submitted to
the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, the coalition
argued that requiring businesses to provide masks at an air quality index
of 101 would add an unnecessary cost, especially since 101 is more common
than 151.

“If the AQI goes above 200, absolutely no workers should be in the field.”

The business associations acknowledged that an index reading above 300 is
rare, but they also warned that requiring masks to be worn at that level
could cause a temporarily halt to field work. At a 301 reading, the
regulation would also require workers to undergo a medical evaluation to
assure that they are able to use their mask, and for the mask to be
fit-tested to assure that it is worn properly. The coalition of groups
suggested the expense would not be worth the day’s work.

The final wildfire smoke rule will be decided by the California Division of
Occupational Safety and Health in the coming months, but the temporary
version is being tested now.

So far, advocates say the mask regulation is being implemented
inconsistently and enforced sparsely by the California Division of
Occupational Safety and Health. Local reporters
have interviewed
multiple people who say they haven’t been offered masks. With N95 masks in
short supply, leaders of Movimiento Cultural de la Unión Indígena say that
the workers they are in contact with are more likely to receive a mask from
a nonprofit than their supervisor. The California Division of Occupational
Safety and Health did not respond to a request for comment.

Even for workers that manage to obtain the recommended personal protective
equipment, “You can’t last an hour working hard with those masks,” said
Peña Lopez, who worked in the fields for years. Paid by volume, rather than
time, grape harvesters spend their shifts running, often picking in the
middle of the night, when the grapes’ sugar levels are stable. A good day
means two tons of grapes per person, said Peña Lopez. It’s exhausting, hot,
messy labor. Many of the community members Movimiento Cultural de la
Unión Indígena works with labored in the smoky fields this summer with only
useless cloth masks — or no masks at all.

[image: Agricultural workers from Bud Farms harvest celery for both
American and export consumption on March 26, 2020 in Oxnard, California.]

Agricultural workers from Bud Farms harvest celery for both American and
export consumption on March 26, 2020, in Oxnard, Calif.

Photo: Brent Stirton/Getty Images
Disaster Upon Disaster

The most obvious solution might seem to be to keep workers out of the
fields when there’s an unhealthy level of smoke. But it’s not so simple,
especially when disasters pile upon disasters.

One reason Sonoma is a key example for understanding what environmental
justice requires is that the wine-producing county has had to deal with
wildly varied climate and public health disasters — not just fires and the
heat waves, but also floods and, this year, a pandemic.

Last February, the county endured massive flooding, the effects of an
“atmospheric river,” a corridor of concentrated water vapor in the sky that
can dump massive amounts of rain. Such “rivers” are expected to drop even
more rain as temperatures continue to rise. Peña Lopez lost his home to the
flood waters, and without a formal contract describing the living
arrangement, he was unable to access any recovery support. Meanwhile, the
heat waves that contribute to wildfires’ intensity and atmospheric rivers’
water vapor content can, on their own, make the harvest perilous for

Perhaps more than any other recent disaster, however, the coronavirus
pandemic demonstrated the way consecutive mega-disasters can compound and
deepen the vulnerability of the most economically insecure. As was true in
much of the rest of the U.S., for the Indigenous immigrant communities of
Sonoma, anxiety over losing income was as severe as concerns about health
effects. The difference in Sonoma County was that a large proportion of the
workforce lacks access to any meaningful income replacement. Undocumented
workers cannot typically obtain unemployment or federal disaster supports
like stimulus checks.

“We’ve simply been excluded for a long time. Because of that, we as an
Indigenous community are fighting for our own people.”

Eager to look friendly to desperate immigrants, California’s Democratic
Gov. Gavin Newsom offered $500 assistance cards. But advocates say that for
many, the paltry sum wasn’t worth the risk to their safety. “Some people
were afraid that if they received assistance from the governor, the federal
government would know and might be able to obtain information about where
to find them,” Peña Lopez explained. He said he has heard of mothers of
children born in the U.S. who were too terrified to even use special
welfare benefit cards provided to account for lost school lunches.

As the pandemic raged, many of those who lost work in the service sector or
other industries turned to the fields, where agricultural labor had been
declared essential. More than ever, the harvest became a solitary
sustaining force in Sonoma County. This year, its busiest and most
lucrative period dovetailed perfectly with the early and aggressive
wildfire season.

After the Tubbs fire, the organizations Jobs With Justice, the Graton Day
Labor Center, and the North Bay Organizing Project launched the UndocuFund
<https://undocufund.org/> to provide basic necessities to community
members. It was relaunched in response to the Kincade fire and in 2020,
filled in the gaps left by a dearth of public services offered during the
pandemic. At the peak of the crisis, the fund had a waitlist of 4,500
people looking for benefits. The question of what will be needed to support
wildfire survivors remains unanswered. (Grape-growing industry figures also
operate their own fund <https://www.scggf.org/> to benefit employees.)

In the wake of so many crises with so little support, Indigenous people
working the fields are developing their own infrastructures of support.
When the wildfires came, members of Movimiento Cultural de la Unión Indígena
 were ready with tents and an open area where people could camp, having
learned time and again that their community is fearful of shelters operated
federal agencies. They’ve created a network of diverse language speakers
for emergencies, and they’ve launched their own separate fund
<https://movimientoculturalindigena.org/> to support services for
Indigenous immigrants — not only for translators, but also culturally
specific resources for healing, like weaving therapy, traditional herb
cleanses, music lessons, and family-friendly language classes.

For Peña Lopez, climate justice means building Indigenous people’s power so
that they can support themselves.

“We’ve given you fruit and vegetables at a good price,” said Peña Lopez,
explaining the low-wage, taxed labor Indigenous farmworkers carried out,
despite the risks of the pandemic and the wildfires. “In the hour when we
need some resource to survive this crisis situation, they don’t give us
support. We’ve simply been excluded for a long time. Because of that, we as
an Indigenous community are fighting for our own people.”
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