Heat, Smoke and COVID are Battering the Workers Who Feed America

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Photographs by 

STOCKTON, Calif — Work began in the dark. At 4 a.m., Briseida Flores could make out a fire burning in the distance. Floodlights illuminated the fields. And shoulder to shoulder with dozens of others, Ms. Flores pushed into the rows of corn. Swiftly, they plucked. One after the other. First under the lights, then by the first rays of daylight.

By 10:30 a.m., it was unbearably hot. Hundreds of wildfires were burning to the north, and so much smoke was settling into the San Joaquin Valley that the local air pollution agency issued a health alert. Ms. Flores, 19, who had joined her mother in the fields after her father lost his job in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, found it hard to breathe in between the tightly planted rows. Her jeans were soaked with sweat.

“It felt like a hundred degrees in there,” Ms. Flores said. “We said we don’t want to go in anymore.”

She went home, exhausted, and slept for an hour.

All this to harvest dried, ocher-colored ears of corn meant to decorate the autumn table.

 

Like the gossamer layer of ash and dust that is settling on the trees in Central California, climate change is adding on to the hazards already faced by some of the country’s poorest, most neglected laborers. So far this year, more than 7,000 fires have scorched 1.4 million acres, and there is no reprieve in sight, officials warned.

 
 
 
A field worker cut corn for his horse this month amid the haze from California’s wildfires.
 
 
 
Workers in the San Joaquin Valley recently harvested corn before dawn to avoid the worst heat of the day.
 
 
 
Briseida Flores, 19, went to work in the fields after her father lost his job.

Summer days are hotter than they were a century ago in the already scorching San Joaquin Valley; the nights, when the body would normally cool down, are warming faster. Heat waves are more frequent. And across the state, fires have burned over a million acres in less than two weeks. One recent scientific paper concluded that climate change had doubled the frequency of extreme fire weather days since the 1980s.

 

In the valley is where the smoke gets stuck when the wind blows it in from the north and south.

Still, hundreds of thousands of men and women like Ms. Flores continue to pluck, weed, and pack produce for the nation here, as temperatures soar into the triple digits for days at a time and the air turns to a soup of dust and smoke, stirred with pollution from truck tailpipes and chemicals sprayed on the fields, not to mention pollution from the old oil wells that dot parts of the valley.

I drove through the valley last week, from Lodi, just below Sacramento, to Arvin, nearly 300 miles to the south, during a calamitous wave of heat, fire and surging coronavirus infections. I wanted to see it through the eyes of those worst affected: agricultural workers. Most of them are immigrants from Mexico. Mostly, they earn minimum wage ($13 an hour in California). Mostly, they lack health insurance and they live amid chronic pollution, making them susceptible to a host of respiratory ailments.

Climate change exacerbates these horrors.

By noon one day last week, temperatures had soared to 100 degrees Fahrenheit in Lodi, in the valley’s northern stretch. Still, Leonor Hernández, 38, mother of three, was at work. Dressed as usual in an oversized full-sleeved shirt and hat, bandanna covering all but her eyes, water bottle stuffed into her pocket, she walked up and down the cherry orchard, scooping up stray branches hacked off after the harvest, hoisting them into a bin. The ground had to be cleared for the next spraying of pesticides, smoke or no smoke.

As the week progressed and more acres burned, the air grew increasingly toxic. Her head and chest hurt. She was coughing. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District urged residents to stay indoors.

Good advice, in theory, Ms. Hernández said. “But we need to work, and if we stay indoors we don’t get paid,” she said. “We have bills for food and rent to pay.”

California is one of two states, along with Washington, with heat standards for outdoor workers. Employers must provide shade, usually a bench with a canopy, and drinking water. Many labor contractors stop work when it gets too hot, but the law doesn’t require a halt at any given temperature threshold.

 
 
Leonor Hernández at her home in Lodi, Calif. “If we stay indoors we don’t get paid,” she said.
 
 
 
 
Haze settled over the San Joaquin Valley. At one point this month, wildfires burned more than a million acres across California in less than two weeks.
 
 
 
Farmworkers tended carrots near Arvin, Calif., during an August heat wave.

The problem of intensifying heat underscores a more basic problem. If you work fewer hours, you make less. And for those who get paid at piece rates — wine grape pickers generally get paid by the bin — there can be a perverse incentive to work as fast as possible, even if it means skipping a water break.

“It’s the price of cheap food,” said Armando Elenes, secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers of America, which advocated for heat standards in California 15 years ago after a spate of farmworker deaths. The union is pushing for similar national legislation.

In the cherry orchard, Ms. Hernández yelled out to one of her co-workers, an older woman whose face and arms were exposed to the elements and wet with sweat. She told her to take a break, drink water. “We are taking a lot of care of each other,” Ms. Hernández said.

Like many of her co-workers, she doesn’t have health insurance, so seeing a doctor is an unaffordable luxury. Twice last year in a heat wave, Ms. Hernández was sick: nausea, headache, stomach ache. “I learned,” she recalled. “I said, ‘No more.’”

 
 

Work stopped shortly after noon. It was 102 degrees Fahrenheit, or about 39 Celsius. Ms. Hernández drove home, showered, prepared to meet with her 12-year-old son’s teacher about remote learning. School, she hoped, would save her children from the fields. “School is very important to me,” she said.

Not far from the cherry orchard, the residents of the Shady Rest mobile home park came home in the afternoon to find neither shade nor rest. The power had gone off because, the residents said, the electricity supply in the complex is insufficient for the number of trailers. That meant no water. No air-conditioning. And, with no internet, no school.

“All you want to do is shower, cook and stay cool, but you can’t,” said Laura Villagran, who came home from her shift at a tree nursery, covered in grime and sweat.

The owner, Lal Singh Toor, said he did not know why the power was out. The complex, he said, has a 400 amp electrical service, a level usually adequate for two to three large single-family homes. Shady Rest has 49 units.

 
 
 
Residents of the Shady Rest mobile home park in Stockton, Calif. Inadequate power in the complex cut children off from online classes this month .
 
 
 
Geography and industry have cursed parts of California with some of the country’s worst air, but many residents of the Shady Rest park lack health insurance.
 
 
 
Laundry day at Shady Rest.

The San Joaquin Valley is a vast bowl of industrial farmland nestled between the Pacific Coast ranges and the Sierra Nevadas. Table grapes, wine grapes, watermelons, carrots, and blueberries are all grown and packed here. So are acres and acres of almonds and walnuts.

 

Geography and industry curse the valley with some of the country’s worst air. Rates of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease run high, according to doctors at Clinica Sierra Vista, a network of medical centers in the valley. Kidney functions decline with prolonged dehydration among many agricultural workers, doctors in the region say. Diabetes — associated with eating inexpensive, starchy food — is common. There’s even a respiratory ailment named for the area: Valley Fever, caused by coccidioides fungus in the soil.

Dr. Olga Meave, chief medical officer at the Clinica Sierra Vista, spoke of the battery of ailments that agricultural workers face. “They’re going to be more prone to chronic respiratory ailments,” she said.

Little wonder, then, that coronavirus infection rates in the valley are among the highest in California. Latinos are disproportionately infected.

“Work is seasonal,” said Jose Rodriguez, head of a Stockton-based group called El Concilio, which provides services for agricultural workers. “If they don’t work, they’re not going to make it through the year.” Hunger runs high. Twice as many people showed up for his group’s food distribution session last week as he had food for.

In the fields outside Stockton last week, the air became thicker and smokier each day. By the week’s end, Ms. Flores could feel it. “It’s really bad,” she said. “You can smell the smoke and it hurts your head.”

 
 
 
Rates of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease run high in the San Joaquin Valley.
 
 
 
 
“If they don’t work, they’re not going to make it through the year,” a community activist said of field laborers.
 
 
 
Mamy grape pickers get paid by the bin, so there can be a perverse incentive to work as fast as possible, even if it means skipping a water break.

The valley is abnormally dry in parts, and in drought in others. Dust swirls up from the fields like a genie. Many creek beds are parched. The rivers have been twisted and bent every which way to bring water from the north for the fields. Since mid-August, for over two weeks, daily high temperatures have ranged from 97 degrees Fahrenheit to 108.

By Thursday, ash fell over Kern County, the valley’s southernmost stretch. The sun struggled to break through. By midafternoon, it looked like a glowing, ghostly orb.

In the fields near the town of Arvin, Alejandro Díaz, knife in hand, bucket strapped to his chest, clipped the last grapes hanging on the vines. Snip. Toss. Unload buckets into bins to make inexpensive table wine. Two bins would fetch $65, and if he and his work partner, Rafael Pacheco, could put in a few hours before the heat roasted them, they might pocket $100 each.

It was muggy among the vines. “Suffocating,” Mr. Pacheco said. “You can’t breathe.”

Mr. Diaz’s face was wet with sweat. Dust from the vines filled in the grooves. He said they would stop at 11 a.m., before it got to 102 degrees Fahrenheit. “My life,” Mr. Diaz said, “is worth more than another round of grapes.”

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