California farmworkers say they didn’t get masks during wildfires
Availability of N95 masks for farmworkers looked as hazy as the orange sky in California this week.
The respirator masks are the most effective shield against toxic air for workers who have to remain outside as wildfires rip through the Golden State. But farmworker groups reported workers have virtually no masks, while the state and ag groups say they have distributed millions.
As of Thursday, the California Office of Emergency Services, along with the California Department of Food and Agriculture have shipped close to 3.27 million N95 masks to agriculture commissioners in 35 counties and over 13 million cloth and surgical masks, according to CDFA spokesman Steve Lyle.
Fresno Agriculture Commissioner Melissa Cregan said that through partner organizations, the county has distributed 443,230 N95 respirators to growers and farm labor contractors. The masks are exclusively for employers, she said, to help them meet a state mandate that they make masks available to employees free of charge if the air quality index for particulate matter 2.5 exceeds 151.
Workers are required to wear masks, per the same statute, if AQI exceeds 500.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, anything above 150 is unhealthy for the general population, not just sensitive groups. The AQI has surpassed that in many areas, and the Valley Air District has warned all residents to remain indoors.
In a Facebook poll United Farm Workers Secretary Treasurer Armando Elenes conducted Wednesday, 335 farmworkers said they had not received an N95 mask, whereas 31 people said they had received one. That’s even worse than when he conducted a similar poll among 330 field workers on Aug. 21, when the state was only starting to distribute masks, and 278 workers, or 84%, said they didn’t receive an N95 mask.
“My question is, where the hell are they going?” Elenes asked.
Irene de Barraicua, spokeswoman for the statewide farmworker group Lideres Campesinas, also said “a high need” for masks persists in the San Joaquin Valley and across the state.
The disconnect between worker and industry groups may be political — industry groups want to be known as good actors, while worker groups want more resources. But both sides admit the state program lacks a robust mechanism to track where each single-use air filtering device ends up.
California farmworkers labor under unhealthy air
Carina couldn’t catch her breath. She felt like she’d been sprinting.
The farmworker was standing still, though, inhaling dust from the grapevine leaves she was removing and smoke from the wildfires raging through California. At that point in late August, the air quality index for particulate matter 2.5 exceeded 160, where she works in Delano, near Bakersfield. The AQI has since surpassed 151 multiple times in that area, and she has yet to receive a mask.
Carina asked to be identified by her first name because she feared workplace retaliation.
Carina said her supervisor, who responds to a farm labor contractor employed by Hronis, Inc. had a box full of N95 respirators to help filter the dirty air. But she said she was told that the masks would only be distributed if an inspector visited the fields. She wanted to complain but said she feared retaliation.
“It’s just hard,” she told The Bee in August. “It’s like they don’t think we are human.”
Kayleena Speakman, of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, gives a supply of N95 face masks to Biola farmer Donovan Failla, during a mask event at the bureau Friday morning, Sept. 4, 2020. Farmworker safety is a priority as over 300,000 N95 masks have been given to the farming community in two weeks, according to Fresno County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Jacobson. Photos by John Walker/The Fresno Bee
Pete Hronis, senior vice president of sales and marketing at the fruit wholesaler, told The Bee every worker received a mask and was trained on how to use it by the contractors. He said masks were available from the beginning of the poor air quality stretch. He said workers signed a contract confirming they had been trained.
“I care very much for all our employees,” he said.