Amid Pacific Northwest heatwave, too much emphasis is on Washington’s cherry harvest, and not those doing it
The largely Latino farm workforce is bearing the brunt of the record high temperatures to save a crop perishing before their eyes.
Farmworker unions are pleading with Washington state cherry growers and Governor Jay Inslee to provide protection for workers currently struggling to save the crop from record heat waves.
Western Washington’s heat wave has put the area's cherry crop in danger of drying out. But United Farm Workers union members are frustrated by the emphasis of protecting cherries over making sure that the predominantly Latino workers are also protected. https://t.co/BeYlKnwDW2
— NBC Latino (@NBCLatino) June 30, 2021
The wave of record high temperatures in Washington has put the region’s cherry crop in jeopardy of sunburn and completely drying out.
However, members of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union said they have been frustrated by the emphasis on protecting the crop, with little mention of ensuring the predominantly Latino workforce are also protected from the stifling temperatures. On Tuesday, June 29, Yakima Valley experienced temperatures as intense as 113 degrees.
According to a report by the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, a farmworker in St. Paul died over the weekend in an area where temperatures rose above 104.
The newspaper wrote that Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lists ‘heat’ as the primary cause of death. OSHA is now putting together safety regulations for its employees who work outside in extreme heat.
Elizabeth Strater, UFW’s director of strategic campaigns, told NBC News that it’s very easy for workers to become dehydrated and suffer from heat exhaustion or heat stroke as temperatures continue to climb.
The UFW is urging Inslee to issue emergency heat standards to secure safety and protection for cherry-picking workers and others working outdoors. Strater said the union is requesting that the same standards used for military personnel training be implemented for the essential workers.
This searing heat is a grave risk to farm workers. Donations will help us keep doing everything we can to save lives.
We are stretched thin trying to respond to the needs of incredibly vulnerable farm workers. Donate @ https://t.co/aNWgPYuC50 #Calor #WeFeedYou pic.twitter.com/XqjO1twiEo
— United Farm Workers (@UFWupdates) June 28, 2021
"Maybe there didn't use to be a need for urgent protection, but there is now," Strater said.
She outlined to NBC News the protections that UFW is demanding.
The farmworkers must have access to cold or at least tepid water, have relief through shade, and be given adequate breaks that don’t impact their wages. There should also be medical help or equipment available if workers become overwhelmed by heat.
Workers have been starting their days at 5 a.m or so and wrapping up earlier, but in some orchards, they were beginning their work late at night. Strater says that these schedule adjustments are “more about fruit than people.”
The issue at hand, as explained by B.J Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission, is that fruit cannot be picked when temperatures are above 85 degrees, as they will succumb to bruises.
"We're in a bind here, we have a perishable crop that is perishing before our eyes," he said.
Some workers are getting things done more quickly during especially hot hours to save the crop, but less hours equates to less money. The cherry industry pays on a piece rate, a certain amount for every pound or bin, and the rates can vary from farm to farm and according to the variety of the fruit.
A worker told Victoria Ruddy, UFW’s Pacific Northwest regional director, that one farm was only paying $3.50 per bin, which holds about 25 to 30 pounds of fruit.
Ruddy also heard from a woman in her late 20s who was working at about 11 a.m on Tuesday, and had started the job at 11 p.m the night before.
She told Ruddy she desperately wanted to go home, felt she couldn’t continue and could barely stand up.
— United Farm Workers (@UFWupdates) July 2, 2021
"They work so hard because their wage rates are not high enough. They avoid breaking to get water or to go to the restroom. Some orchards are not letting them take water into the field," Ruddy told NBC News.
A group of volunteers from UFW, some of them workers, filled up an inflatable pool with ice and cold drinks and traveled to various fields in search of workers. Strater said that not every field was equipped with a water station, and even if they are, the water isn’t guaranteed to be cold.
Democrats have introduced legislation in the House and Senate that would require federal OSHA to establish and enforce protection standards for those working in high-heat environments, including farmworkers. The legislation would also require employers to train employees on risk factors for heat illness.
The legislation is known as the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, in honor of the California farmworker who died in 2004 after picking grapes for 10 hours straight in temperatures that rose to 105 degrees.
Chelsea Dimas, a candidate for a city council seat in Sunnyside, Washington, helped pass out cold water on Monday and Tuesday after seeing a UFW flyer asking for volunteers.
Dimas began picking cherries at only 13 and told NBC News that she comes from a long line of farmworkers, including her parents and siblings.
Historic heat in the west is blamed for what may be record-breaking hospitalizations in Washington state.
Hospitals report nearly 1,800 emergency room visits for heat-related illness in the past week.@lilialuciano reports on how the heat is impacting farmworkers. pic.twitter.com/hus6h86lZo
— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) July 2, 2021
She said volunteers had a difficult time locating workers on Tuesday, as their cars were not visible at certain orchards. But in one field, they were able to find about 40 workers and provide them with much-needed hydration.
"Actually, we ran out of water and so we had to call in other volunteers to bring in more supplies," she said.
By 8 a.m on Tuesday, it was already 87 degrees, and the people Dimas spoke to had been in the fields since 4 a.m.