Florencio Gueta Vargas worked in the fields for most of his life, which took him from his family ranch in Zacatecas, Mexico, to the fields of California and Washington.
He would always tell his family how he wanted to return to his homeland once he got to an age when he could not work anymore.
“That’s where he wanted to die, in his land,” said Lorena Gonzalez Cortez, the oldest of his six daughters.
Gueta Vargas, known to his family as Jose Cortez Avila, never made it back. He died July 29 at a south central Washington hops farm — a worker fatality the Yakima County Coroner’s Office attributed to atherosclerotic disease with environmental heat as a contributing factor.
He was found midafternoon slumped by the step of his tractor after the end of his shift when temperatures hovered in the low 90s, according to Andy Gamache, a co-owner of the Virgil Gamache Farms near Toppenish, where Gueta Vargas worked.
Gamache said he tried to revive him but was not successful.
Yakima County coroner Jim Curtice said Gueta Vargas — who was 69, according to his family — was pronounced dead at the scene at about 4:14 p.m. by emergency-medical personnel. He noted heat can place a “tremendous amount of stress” on people who suffer from underlying cardiac disease.
The dangers of heat stress have been a big concern during this year’s scorching summer. Late June extreme temperatures shattered historic records and 100-plus degree days persisted in Central and Eastern Washington’s agricultural regions through much of July.
During the June heat wave, Oregon and Washington health officials found heat-related illness caused or contributed to the deaths of more than 210 people. Among them was Oregon farmworker Sebastian Francisco Perez, whose body was found on June 26 in a blueberry field.
In early July, spurred by concerns among farmworker advocates, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries released emergency rules to provide farmworkers and other outdoor workers with additional protections from heat-related illness.
The rules, which went into effect July 13, require employers to offer shade or other means for employees to cool down when temperatures reach 100 degrees, as well as rest periods of at least 10 minutes every two hours.
The measure, combined with existing rules, also requires employers to provide cool drinking water once temperatures reach 89 degrees, and allow employees to take additional paid rest when needed to prevent overheating. Rules were widely criticized by farmworker advocates for falling short of protecting workers.
The events surrounding Gueta Vargas’ death are the focus of an L&I investigation currently underway. His death has also drawn scrutiny from the United Farm Workers union, which is calling for federal heat standards to protect outdoor workers.
“There are many unanswered questions about Florencio’s death,” said Elizabeth Strater, an organizer for United Farm Workers. “We do know that farmworkers are as much as 35 times more likely to die from heat than any other civilian occupation.”
The state investigation will include a look at temperatures and other weather conditions that day, according to L&I spokesperson Matt Ross. Washington State University’s AgWeatherNet at Toppenish reported an average hourly temperature of 100.8 at 2 p.m. on July 29.
Gonzalez Cortez said she noticed the air quality was poor that day due to wildfire smoke.
“I started to panic,” she said. “I’ve been in those fields. It is so humid, and it is so hard to breathe.”
Gueta Vargas was a veteran employee who worked for the farm since the 1990s. He was running a disc on the tractor in the hops fields the day he died.
“He was very capable of the job at hand,” said Gamache, a fourth-generation co-owner of the farm, which grows wine grapes and hops and has a peak workforce of some 200 employees. “He had an infectious smile. He was very happy and couldn’t wait to come back each year to work. He will be missed.”
Gueta Vargas had water with him, according to Gamache, who said the policy is for employees to take shade breaks, when needed, underneath the trellised hops vines that grow to heights of about 18 feet.
When Gueta Vargas did not return to the parking lot at 2:30 p.m. after his shift, Gamache said he went to his work area and found Gueta Vargas nonresponsive, but still breathing. Gamache began unsuccessful efforts to revive him as emergency-medical personnel were called to the farm.
CPR was performed and a wet compress was placed on Gueta Vargas’ forehead. His breathing picked up, then stopped, according to Casey Schilperoort, a spokesperson for the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office.
Gonzalez Cortez said her family was initially told Gueta Vargas was OK, but when she saw her father’s truck and a sheriff’s car pull up to the office lot without her father in sight, she knew something was wrong. A deputy informed them he had died.
She is concerned about the reports from other workers who say her father was not checked on through the course of the day. She alleges his death was a result of negligence.
“If they periodically checked on their workers, maybe they would have found my dad earlier,” she said. “The way he passed away could have totally been prevented.”
Gamache said there are regular checks on employees. Gueta Vargas was seen at a 2 p.m. rest break, he said, and there was a larger crew working in an adjacent field.
Gonzalez Cortez can’t fathom why her family wasn’t informed earlier in the afternoon that her dad was unwell, and why they only heard from a relative who happened to see his truck still in the lot around 4 p.m. The family, she said, still has not received condolences from the farm.
Gamache said a condolence card is circulating among employees.
Gueta Vargas was full of life, according to this daughter. He didn’t need a special occasion to loudly play his Mexican corridos, especially songs by Chalino Sánchez. He was a grill master and loved to make carne asada and chicken. And his birria recipe was unmatched.
Before Gonzalez Cortez falls asleep each night, she said she goes through videos of her dad being loud, funny and just basks in his warmness. She said her family wants more details about what led to his death.
“Not knowing is what haunts me at night. We just don’t know,” she said. “My dad was a person. He didn’t deserve to go out like this.”
The family created a GoFundMe page to help with funeral costs and family expenses.