Some Southern California farms remain open despite air hazards, exposing workers to wildfire ash

A group of volunteers tried to distribute masks to workers, but they were kicked off the farms.

CREDIT: Lucas Zucker/ Central Coast Alliance United For A Sustainable Economy (CAUSE)
CREDIT: Lucas Zucker/ Central Coast Alliance United For A Sustainable Economy (CAUSE)

As a series of massive wildfires threatens to engulf residential neighborhoods in Southern California and authorities instruct people to stay home because of hazardous air quality conditions, many farmworkers are continuing to work in fields without proper equipment.

Dozens of volunteers with Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) — an organization working to improve the lives of low-income and immigrant youth communities — handed out about 500 N95 masks Thursday to farmworkers on various farms across the Ventura and Santa Barbara regions to guard against the cancerous wildfire ash. But some CAUSE volunteers were reportedly kicked off farms despite workers asking for those masks, according to CAUSE policy director Lucas Zucker.

“Our youth just got kicked off a farm for giving out masks at Victoria and Olivas at the Oxnard/Ventura border,” Zucker wrote in a public Facebook post Thursday. “Workers were asking for them but the mayordomo forced us to leave. The workers on the farm next to it said it was Rincon. They had Driscoll’s boxes so I assume they’re a Driscoll’s supplier.”

One Mayordomo, which Zucker referred to as the foremen, reportedly came over to stop volunteers as they handed out masks to farmworkers who did not have proper equipment. The foreman, Zucker told ThinkProgress, said the workers had already received masks a few days ago and promptly escorted the CAUSE volunteers off the farm’s premises.

CREDIT: LUCAS ZUCKER/ CENTRAL COAST ALLIANCE UNITED FOR A SUSTAINABLE ECONOMY (CAUSE)
CREDIT: LUCAS ZUCKER/ CENTRAL COAST ALLIANCE UNITED FOR A SUSTAINABLE ECONOMY (CAUSE)

More than 100,000 acres in Southern California have already burned and the fire department has suggested people wear masks because of the “severe impact on air quality and visibility,” CNN reported. As Cameron Yee, the CAUSE operations and research director told ThinkProgress, the group took the advice to heart and went to farms around the Ventura and Oxnard area, two areas impacted by the southern California fires. Yee said that some farmworkers were working as close as a mile away from the nearest wildfire, but that they were working without masks.

“Obviously the conditions are really hazardous right now and we’re driving through fields where we saw farmworkers who didn’t have masks so we decided we would go to different farms,” Yee told ThinkProgress in a phone interview Thursday.

Driscoll’s,  the world’s largest berry distributor, has operations in various states. But it is perhaps best known among farmworkers for fighting against better working and living conditions in the past. According to Zucker, Reiter, a Driscoll’s grower of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries, had closed its main operation in the area because of the fire, but smaller contractors with Driscoll’s remained open with farmworkers still working in the fields.

“You have the main company of Driscoll’s acting as a responsible company, but you also have bad actors in the same supply chain,” Zucker said in a phone interview with ThinkProgress. “It’s incredible to me that agricultural companies still have their farms open.”

In an statement emailed to ThinkProgress, Driscoll’s spokesperson said the company “works with a number of independent growers to grow and harvest berries that are sold under the Driscoll’s brand. Given this, we’re actively working to understand how these growers and ranches are operating today.”

Zucker said that some farmworkers are working about “10 minutes away” from the evacuation zone while the fire continues to burn in the hills, with smoke and ashes whipping around in heavy winds. Zucker also said he received two email blasts from the Ventura County Agricultural Association, which called on farms to comply with labor laws and recommended workers stay home.

Immigrant farmworkers are often the ones who are at risk of greatest harm in dangerous conditions because they face potential repercussions for speaking out. A September 2015 survey of 500 Central California farmworkers found that farmworkers faced harsh work environments where they were given inadequate breaks, were forced to work despite injuries, and had to work in conditions that violated health and safety laws.

“This is just the peak of something that’s been going on for a long time,” Zucker said.

In an emailed statement sent Friday to ThinkProgress, CAL-OSHA — the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) which seeks to protect and improve the health and safety of workers — said that it was working with employers and employees in Southern California on worker safety and health in wildfire areas. The agency issued both an English and Spanish-language advisory calling on employers to ensure special precautions to protect workers, including that respirators must be provided.

“On December 6th, Cal/OSHA issued an English and Spanish-language advisory to all employers that special precautions must be taken to protect workers from hazards from wildfire smoke – including that respirators must be provided and used properly,” the statement read. “Cal/OSHA has also provided notices on worker safety to farm labor contractors in Southern California licensed by the Labor Commissioner’s Office, agricultural employers and associations, chambers of commerce, employee groups, and outdoor employers.”

This post has been updated to include two statements from Driscoll’s and CAL-OSHA.