Another scorching August day reached triple-digit temperatures in the Yakima Valley recently. Inside the towering rows of hop orchards, high humidity and little shade made the already stifling conditions feel worse.
The state’s emergency heat rules for outdoor workers — which began in July and trigger when the temperature is 100 degrees or higher — require that employers provide shade and paid cooling breaks. Yet organizers and volunteers with the United Farm Workers union found little had changed at the nearly 50 Washington sites they visited that day.
That’s unacceptable. Just as Washington depends on its farmworkers to harvest the bounty it shares with the world — blueberries, grapes, cherries, apples — farmworkers must be able to depend on the state to keep them safe.
That requires state regulators to develop new, stricter heat standards and improve enforcement. Right now, investigations by the Department of Labor and Industries largely depend on complaints filed by activists and workers, many of whom keep quiet to avoid potential retaliation.
Farm work is arduous and demanding under the best circumstances, but climate change has made things worse in recent years, with rising temperatures, increasing drought conditions and poor air quality from longer fire seasons. Farmworkers are already at least 20 times more likely to die of heat stress than any other category of worker, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We need folks to understand that this is not about creating a really comfortable working condition,” said UFW organizer Elizabeth Strater. “This is about what it’s going to take to keep people alive.”
Farmworkers are highly vulnerable. Many do not have legal permission to be in the U.S., but unlike in other industries that depend on immigrant labor, such as construction, farm work lacks the most basic federal labor rights.
Washington farmworkers are guaranteed an hourly minimum wage, but many earn more money the more they produce.
This incentivizes pushing themselves to the limit, as every minute not spent picking means less income for workers who are already among the poorest in the country.
Current state heat regulations for farmworkers and outdoor workers, in effect from May through September, require growers to provide water and educate employees on the dangers of heat exposure and how to protect themselves. They also encourage employers to stop work when temperatures reach 90 degrees.
Those requirements are clearly falling short. A 2015 University of Washington study found that almost a third of the state’s farmworkers reported experiencing symptoms related to heat illness, which include muscle spasms, headache, dizziness and nausea. Prolonged exposure can cause permanent disability or death.
The state Department of Labor and Industries has begun the process of reexamining the current heat rules and are asking stakeholders for input, but regulators don’t need to look too far for ways to improve. California has stronger heat guidelines — including requiring access to shade starting at 80 degrees and cool-down breaks — and Oregon’s emergency rules put Washington’s to shame.
The state should be leading the way on farmworker protections, not lagging behind.
Editor’s note: This editorial was updated to correct that workers are guaranteed an hourly wage in Washington state. In addition, many are paid on a piece-rate basis so they can earn more the more they produce.