Farmworkers face COVID, heat wave and wildfire smoke

SBC Office of Emergency Services provides N95 masks to guard against unhealthy air quality.

Not only are farmworkers among the most vulnerable population to the COVID-19 outbreak, but in recent days they have also faced triple-digit temperatures and unhealthy air quality resulting from wildfires. 

Smoke in the air required farmers to provide their field workers with N95 masks. San Benito County Agricultural Commissioner Karen Overstreet said the county was able to obtain 10,000 masks to help protect local farmworkers from exposure to wildfire smoke. 

“The department has distributed approximately 4,000 masks,” Overstreet said. “Many were delivered directly to harvest crews in the field.”

Hollister experienced two days of unhealthy air starting on Aug. 19 with a daily Air Quality Index (AQI) of 166 and 153, according to the AirNow interactive map. Anything above 100 is considered unhealthy and over 200 is deemed very unhealthy. 

California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (CalOSHA) requires employers to provide “proper respiratory protection equipment” when the Air Quality Index for particulate matter 2.5—solid particles and liquid droplets suspended in air with an aerodynamic diameter of 2.5 micrometers or smaller—reaches 151 or higher. The N95 mask is rated as effective protection equipment under such conditions.

Though employers are required to provide masks when the AQI is 151, workers are not required to use them until the AQI reaches 500. Below the 500 AQI threshold, workers wear masks on a voluntary basis.  

Gilberto Gutierrez, 33, said he received a mask and that it did help with protecting the workers from particles in the air. 

“Esta bien que nos tomen en cuenta,” Gutierrez said. (It’s good that they are thinking of us.)

The Baja, California, native said this is his third season coming to San Benito County as a farm laborer. Like many of his coworkers, he said he did not know his employer was required to provide the masks as protection from poor air quality.

Christopher Valadez, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, said over 200,000 masks were secured and distributed to farmworkers in Monterey County starting on Aug. 20. Additional masks were obtained by the various agricultural commissioners in the Central Coast region. 

While farmers provided masks to their employees to mitigate against the wildfire smoke, Valadez said farmers took other precautions to protect workers from other unhealthy elements, such as changing the harvesting schedules to avoid exposure to heat wave temperatures, in addition to providing more frequent breaks for hydration and limiting work where heat is a factor.

“I haven’t received any reports coming from any incidents or suggested incidents last week stating there were heat-related challenges,” Valadez said. 

Gutierrez said during the two-week heat wave, his quadrilla, or group, began work earlier to avoid the heat. He also said there were no cases of workers experiencing heat strokes or related illnesses.


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Noe Magaña

Noe Magaña is BenitoLink Co-Editor and Content Manager. He joined BenitoLink as reporter intern and was soon brought on staff as a BenitoLink reporter. He also experiments with videography and photography. He is a San Benito High School alumnus with a bachelor's in journalism from San Jose State and a Liberal Arts Associate's Degree from Gavilan College. Noe also attended San Jose City College and was the managing editor for the City College Times, the school's newspaper. He was a reporter and later a copy editor for San Jose State's Spartan Daily. He is a USC Center for Health Journalism 2020 California Fellow.