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Union calls for 'urgent' farmworker protections during Washington's record heat

United Farm Workers urged Gov. Jay Inslee to issue emergency heat standards for the predominantly Latino workers. "Maybe there didn't use to be a need for urgent protection, but there is now."
Farmworker advocates want to make sure that workers are protected as they scramble to save Washington state's cherry crop from record-setting heat. 
Farmworker advocates want to make sure that workers are protected as they scramble to save Washington state's cherry crop from record-setting heat. Paulacobleigh / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Farmworker union organizers are urging Washington state cherry growers and the governor to protect workers who are critical to the ongoing effort to save the crop from record heat.

The heat wave that has hit western Washington has put the area's cherry crop in danger of sunburn and drying out, the Yakima Herald reported.

But members of the United Farm Workers union said they've been frustrated by the emphasis on protecting the cherries, with little mention of making sure that the predominantly Latino workers are also protected from the temperatures, which were projected to reach about 113 degrees Tuesday in the Yakima Valley.

The Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore. reported on Tuesday that a farmworker in St. Paul, Ore. died over the weekend in an area where temperatures rose above 104.

The newspaper said Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration "lists 'heat' as the primary incident prescription." Oregon OSHA is developing safety rules for employees who work outdoors in extreme heat, the newspaper reported.

Workers may become dehydrated and suffer heat exhaustion or heatstroke as the temperatures climb, said Elizabeth Strater, UFW's director of strategic campaigns.

The UFW has asked Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to issue emergency heat standards to ensure cherry-picking workers and other outdoor workers are protected. She said the union is pushing for the same standards used for military personnel while in training.

"Maybe there didn't use to be a need for urgent protection, but there is now," Strater told NBC News.

The farmworkers must have access to cold or tepid potable water, have shade relief and be given breaks that don't deduct from their wages. There should be medical help or equipment available for workers if they are overwhelmed by heat, Strater said. She said with weather intensifying each season, there is need for permanent new rules on the books as well.

A farmworker picks cherries at a Washington state orchard during an intense heat wave.
A farmworker picks cherries at a Washington state orchard during an intense heat wave. United Farm Workers

Workers had been starting workdays at 5 a.m. or so and wrapping up earlier. In some orchards, they were starting late at night.

"All these schedule adjustments, it's really about fruit more than people," she said.

B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Commission, a nonprofit marketer for fruit growers, said cherry growers over the weekend and this week have started harvesting at night, bringing lights to the orchard so work can start at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. and finish early.

He said the fruit can't be picked when temperatures rise above 85 degrees because they bruise as bins fill up and cherries are piled on top of each other.

Volunteers hand out cold water and Gatorade to laborers working in Washington’s cherry fields.
Volunteers hand out cold water and Gatorade to laborers working in Washington’s cherry fields.United Farm Workers

"We're in a bind here, we have a perishable crop that is perishing before our eyes," he said.

Some farmworkers are working at a faster pace in the heat to help save the crop, but shorter hours mean less money. The cherry industry pays on a piece rate, a certain amount for every pound or bin. The rates vary from farm to farm and according to the cherry variety.

"She could hardly stand up"

A worker told Victoria Ruddy, UFW's Pacific Northwest regional director, that one farm was paying $3.50 a bin, which holds almost 25 to 30 pounds of cherries.

Ruddy said she also spoke to a woman she guessed to be in her late 20s or early 30s, who was working at about 11 a.m. Tuesday. The woman had started picking cherries at 11 p.m. Monday.

"She wanted to go home. She couldn't do any more. She could hardly stand up," she said.

"They work so hard because their wage rates are not high enough. They avoid breaking to get water or to go to the restroom. Some orchards are not letting them take water into the field," she said.

"They have to walk out to the edge of the field in the sun, go where they eat lunch and get a drink and you are just standing there and the sun is beating on you," she said.

The heat strain on workers comes after many farmworkers continued working despite the pandemic, and in some places without mask protections and information about social distancing and other Covid-19 safety protocols.

Carlos Gonzalez, 50, who picks grapes in Washington, has been getting off work at noon this week because of the heat. But he had to stop at 11 a.m. Tuesday because it was too hot.

On Monday, after leaving work, he was so concerned about fellow farm laborers who were still working that he bought cases of water for UFW volunteers to distribute.

He said he did it from the heart, and hopes he will be helped when he needs it one day.

A group of UFW volunteers, some of them workers, filled an inflatable pool with ice and cold drinks and drove to various fields looking for workers. Not all fields had water stations and the water is not always cold, Strater said.

Democrats have introduced legislation in the House and Senate that would require federal OSHA to create and enforce standards protecting workers in high-heat environments, including farmworkers. It also would require employers to train employees on heat illness risk factors.

The legislation bears the name of Asunción Valdivia, a California farmworker who died in 2004 after picking grapes for 10 hours straight in temperatures that reached 105 degrees. He died in his car because workers did not know the address of where they were working, as is often the case in the fields.

"It's a job safety issue," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. and chairman of the Natural Resources Committee. "It is a given that the heat is not going to abate itself overnight, if at all. This is just going to get worse and worse and the workers that are exposed are primarily of color, primarily Latino."

He said when it comes to the potentially dangerous heat, the law should give farmworkers the same safety protections as other workers.

"Still the same fight today"

Chelsea Dimas, a candidate for a city council seat in Sunnyside, Washington, helped distribute water Monday and Tuesday after seeing a UFW flyer asking for volunteers.

Dimas, who began picking cherries at age 13., said she comes from "a long line of farmworkers" that includes her parents and siblings.

She said volunteers had a hard time finding workers Tuesday; their cars were not visible at some orchards. But in one field, after walking a way down into the orchard rows, they found about 40 workers.

"Actually, we ran out of water and so we had to call in other volunteers to bring in more supplies," she said. The workers eagerly took the cold water and held it to their faces to cool themselves. Many were wearing long sleeves and pants and other layers to protect themselves from the sun, she said.

By 8 a.m. Tuesday, "it was already 87 degrees" and "people I talked to had already been out since 4 a.m.," she said. She said it is "sad" the community has to do the work "when owners of orchards should be doing it themselves."

Dimas, who fell from a ladder while picking cherries leading to a lawsuit, said it was "surreal" to be back in the fields. She said her aunt was among the workers she encountered.

"The same stuff that my family and different people fought for when I was a child is still the same fight today," she said. "Everything seems exactly the same ... I literally walked back into my old life when I was 13 years old."

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