WENATCHEE — Beads of sweat slowly and relentlessly dripped down Jose Luis Naranjo’s face as he focused on quickly and carefully filling a bucket with Rainier cherries in a Central Washington field as the sun beat overhead and temperatures rose.
Wearing a long-sleeved hoodie, long pants and a cap to protect his skin from sunburn and chemical irritants, Naranjo found only temporary relief from the sun as he moved to the shadowed part of the cherry tree near the Columbia River.
“One of the hardest things about the summer fieldwork is the heat we have to endure,” said Naranjo, 33.
Farmworkers will continue working in the fields across Washington this week, even as temperatures continue to hover in the 100s. The National Weather Service has issued an excessive heat warning through Thursday in Central and Eastern Washington, including in Wenatchee, where the temperature is expected to reach 117 degrees on Tuesday.
Fieldwork should be postponed once the temperature reaches 90 degrees, said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, a nonprofit association that provides human resource services to employers in the agriculture industry. Not only does the fruit become too soft, but at that temperature, heat-related illnesses begin to occur, he said.
Although growers are advised to stop work once at those temperatures, no state regulations require them to wait, Gempler said.
Portions of Central and Eastern Washington are expected to reach temperatures of up to 115 degrees this week. Cherries are sensitive to heat and can bruise at the slightest touch once they’re warmed by the weather.
Naranjo, who wakes up around 4 a.m. to beat the heat, carefully orchestrates his every move in the fields. He limits his unprotected contact with the 10-foot metal ladder he carries throughout the day once it begins to heat up under the sun, he said.
“Your body begins to feel the effects of the heat as early as 8 in the morning,” Naranjo said. “That’s when you begin to slow down your pace, but you have to keep working.”
Fellow farmworker Raul Melendrez Castillo agreed, noting that he typically wakes up at 3:30 a.m. to prepare mentally and physically for the day ahead.
Melendrez Castillo, 28, doesn’t work in the fields year-round like Naranjo. He takes off a week or two from his full-time job painting houses to work in the fields alongside family members, Melendrez Castillo said.
“It’s immensely hard work but I enjoy being in the open air surrounded by people joking and their loud music,” he said. “We’re all Mexican here so there’s no sense of anybody looking down on us.”
To circumvent the dangers of working in the heat for farmworkers and the crops, growers have been stopping early in the day and some have taken on graveyard shifts, with their workers picking cherries with headlamps, said Juli Ogden, who owns the farm where the two picked on Sunday.
Growers worry about the damage the scorching temperatures can have on their crops, including Ogden, whose 5-acre farm is on the outskirts of Wenatchee.
Tens of thousands of workers in Washington and other states in the Northwest pick around 10 million pounds of fruit a day. Concerns about quality are always present, but they’ve been heightened under these temperatures, said Ogden, who also works as a farm food safety trainer.
“Small farmers care deeply about their workers,” she said. “But the corporatization of the industry doesn’t allow employers to see them as an individual.”
As soon as the heat becomes unbearable, Ogden makes the rounds, asking her workers if they want to stop working for the day.
Even then, many choose to continue working. Cherry pickers and other farmworkers tend to work under contract, paid for what they pick, Naranjo said, unless there’s an hourly wage outlined in a contract.
Gempler said growers need to provide heat training to their employees, so they are aware of telltale signs of heat-related illnesses, like heat exhaustion, and they can stop before they have a heat stroke.
Early signs of being overheated can include a heat rash on the skin and muscle cramps from a lack of electrolytes, he said. Symptoms of heat exhaustion can range from headaches and excessive sweating to dizziness or confusion.
Those suffering from potential heat exhaustion need to be taken to a cool place and should not be left alone, Gempler said. They should loosen their clothing and drink a cup of water and if they don’t recover within minutes that may be an indicator that they need medical attention.
“It is about being extremely watchful and taking action to protect workers,” Gempler said.