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Wildfires are an added risk to farmworkers already disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Photo: Getty Images
Wildfires are an added risk to farmworkers already disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Photo: Getty Images

California’s record temperatures and wildfires: Disaster for Latinx farmworkers already affected by COVID-19

Firefighters are battling rampant wildfires, but what of the farm laborers still working to feed California?

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Just like in 2019, Latinx farm workers face serious health risks brought by California’s wildfires. 

Now add COVID-19 and record-breaking temperatures into the mix.

For weeks, it has been reported that as California continues to struggle with new COVID-19 outbreaks, farmworkers, who are largely Latinx, are among the most affected.

Farmworkers continue to be vulnerable to COVID-19 because there isn’t enough education or implementation of health protocols out in the fields. The majority of farmworkers also exclusively speak Spanish. Beyond that, there have not been adequate measures put in place by the state for their protection.

Latinx farmworkers, while underreported, have been treated as essential workers since the pandemic began, forced to work even as multiple cities throughout the state hit record-breaking temperatures during a heat wave. 

And now, wildfires currently spreading across a wide region of Northern California and the Bay area have prompted a National Weather Service warning that air quality in the area will be “very poor for the foreseeable future.”

The fires have engulfed rural and forest areas in the Bay area, Sonoma County, and near Salinas in Monterey County, a major agricultural producer in the state.

Recently, it was discovered through a month-long investigation by CalMatters and the Salinas Californian, that multiple COVID-19 outbreaks at companies throughout the state sickened over 350 farm workers. 

The report found harvesting companies did not always notify local public health departments when they discovered an outbreak because of the lack of state and federal guidelines.

The report included data by the California Institute of Rural Studies, and found guest farmworkers in California three times more likely to catch COVID-19 than workers in any other industry

Largely, this can also be attributed to living conditions, where an average of five California guest workers can be assigned to rooms in apartments, motels and labor camps.

In 2019, California’s farm workers were witnessed still harvesting crops, even during one of the worst wildfire seasons the state had ever experienced.

This means workers will be exposed to dangerous heat and smoke. For months, agricultural workers were labeled as “essential,” laboring every day amid a pandemic. 

And now, they must breathe in the smoke.

California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a statewide emergency on Tuesday in response to the wildfires, saying the state is deploying every resource available to keep communities safe.

“Grateful for our firefighters, first responders, and everyone on the frontlines protecting Californians during this time,” Newsom wrote Wednesday. 
 

This is no snub to firefighters, of course, but what of the hundreds of farmworkers on the frontlines feeding Californians during this time? 

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