Sonoma County supervisors join debate over farmworker safety during wildfires
Agricultural work comes relatively easy to Margarita Garcia, a farmworker who harvests Sonoma County’s vineyards.
Raised on a farm, she had an upbringing that instilled in her a respect for the earth and the harvest.
But, the impact of this region’s recurring wildfires has made the fast-paced job of reaping the fields — in which workers are typically paid per ton of grapes they collect — more difficult.
When fires strike the area, Garcia said, the ash that sweeps in covers the portable bathrooms workers share. She added that some of her co-workers who primarily speak Indigenous languages struggle to understand safety information.
And, as she and other laborers hustle to cut the grapes from local vines, the N95 masks covering their faces make it hard for them to breathe. Garcia said some have opted to work without them, exposing themselves to the respiratory dangers caused by wafting wildfire smoke.
“I’d love to see people running up and down Taylor Mountain with those masks on,” she said, giving an example of what it’s like to harvest grapes during a wildfire.
“It’s like going on a 10K marathon. Put on that mask, see if you can breathe.”
Garcia shared her story on Sept. 23 as part of a conversation about farm laborer safety during wildfires. It was hosted by the Latino leadership group Los Cien, which was launched in 2009 and has more than 2,000 members.
The panel discussion, titled “Behind the lines: Wildfires and farmworker safety,” included representatives from Cal/OSHA, the state’s workplace safety agency; North Bay Jobs with Justice, a local nonprofit founded in 2013 that is spearheading a list of demands created to improve farmworker safety during major blazes; and a viticulture consultant, someone familiar with the science of growing grapes.
The Sonoma County Farm Bureau, the county’s Agricultural Commissioner’s Office and the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission were invited to be part of the panel, but none were able to participate, said Kerry Fugett, a Los Cien board member and the panel’s moderator.
“Our community has found itself under the national spotlight to ensure we keep our farmworkers safe in the face of increasing fires,” Fugett said during the Sept. 23 meeting.
The discussion came on the heels of efforts by North Bay Jobs with Justice to address growing concerns about this region’s yearly wildfires, which frequently coincide with the grape harvest.
Now, the effort is extending beyond the grape growers.
In interviews this week, it’s clear Sonoma County supervisors intend to get heavily involved in the issue, as well.
Two supervisors, Chairwoman Lynda Hopkins and Supervisor James Gore, said they plan to ask their colleagues to set aside federal COVID-19 relief dollars to boost workers’ safety during wildfires. Both are also calling on Cal/OSHA to provide local governments with more guidance on this issue.
North Bay Jobs with Justice’s demands include hazard pay, disaster insurance for workers who lose out on wages as a result of nearby wildfires, translated safety and evacuation information in Indigenous languages to better accommodate fieldworkers who primarily speak those languages, and community safety observers that would ensure employers are meeting wildfire-specific health and safety regulations when blazes strike.
“I would love to have Cal/OSHA and our state legislators at the table,” said Gore, who also serves as the president of the California State Association of Counties.
“We need to create the right criteria because we need to stop innovating through disasters. We need to embrace the new normal.”
Farmworkers and their advocates say the large blazes could put a long-term strain on the local vineyard worker community, a group that doesn’t have the same financial safeguards as the companies that employ them.
Loss of wages when wildfires destroy or damage crops, as well as the smoke farmworkers breathe when they harvest, can devastate workers and their families, they say.
At the same time, farmers are bracing for a light crop because of California’s ongoing drought. And last year, smoke from local wildfires tainted some of the region’s grapes, forcing many farmers to leave fruit on the vines, resulting in a 32% decrease in the tonnage of grapes picked as compared to 2019.
Farmworker safety concerns came to the forefront in 2020 after a coalition of local groups wrote to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors with concerns about a “lack of consideration for the farmworkers’ health and safety” when the Sonoma County Department of Agriculture allowed more than 300 businesses, including vineyard owners, to bring workers into evacuation zones during the LNU Complex fires.