Heat, Smoke, Pandemic: Dangers Multiply for Farmworkers in 2020

By Lauren Hernandez for Planet Forward

The timing has been terrible for California farmworkers in 2020: wilting heat waves, wildfires spewing acrid smoke across the state and the persistent threat of COVID-19. This triple threat looms large over the lucrative fall harvest of grapes and almonds, which for some seasonal laborers is the busiest time of year, until November.

Kent E. Pinkerton, a leading expert in farmworker health, has been worried about such a threat for a decade. The pandemic, which is expected to linger in California for months, could be an invisible killer in the fields.

“It is extremely difficult for those workers to be able to social distance themselves, and so I think it is incredibly important that the workers and those who are supervising the workers take into account some of the things that they can do to protect the workers from potentially becoming infected with coronavirus,” said Pinkerton, who is the director of Center for Health and the Environment and a professor at University of California, Davis.

Farmworkers say they’re vulnerable to the health effects of the novel coronavirus and wildfires, and have little means to seek treatment because many lack health insurance.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have insurance, and that is one of the consequences we face as farmworkers. That is why we have to be prepared,” said Veronica Mota, a farmworker for 20 years and an organizer with United Farm Workers.

Heat stress and exhaustion are detrimental and life-threatening side effects of hot weather – and often unavoidable. Poor air quality harms everyone’s health, and farm work is time sensitive: Waiting for skies to clear of smoke could mean a crop rots in the fields. But that type of exposure also can harm lungs and hearts, Pinkerton said.

The coronavirus makes battling these threats even harder because keeping a safe distance while harvesting is nearly impossible

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