After June’s devastating heat wave killed hundreds in the Pacific Northwest, Washington state passed emergency rules to protect outdoor workers, but it wasn’t enough to save Florencio Gueta Vargas.
Vargas died on July 29, just weeks after the heat rules went into effect on July 13.
Vargas, also known by his family as Jose Cortez Avila, died after working at a hops farm near Toppenish, from what the Yakima County Coroner’s Office attributed to atherosclerotic disease with environmental heat as a contributing factor. His family said he was 69.
As my colleagues Daisy Zavala and Hal Bernton reported last week in The Seattle Times, Vargas worked in the fields for most of his life and was the father of six daughters. He was from Zacatecas, Mexico, and hoped to return someday and die in his homeland, his oldest daughter, Lorena Gonzalez Cortez, said.
Instead, Vargas was found by his tractor after working a shift in temperatures that his employer said were in the low 90s. Washington State University’s AgWeatherNet reported an average hourly temp of 100.8 at 2 p.m. in Toppenish that day.
While the Department of Labor and Industries investigates Vargas’ death, we do know one thing for sure: Farmworkers face some of the most intense effects of our warming planet.
According to Bloomberg, U.S. farmworkers are about 35 times more at risk of heat-related death than the general labor force. And as extreme heat events and temperatures increase, that danger is only likely to rise, not to mention the rising danger of smoke and wildfires on air quality for outdoor workers.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Elizabeth Strater, the director of strategic campaigns for the United Farm Workers, said that while farmworkers are considered essential, they are not treated as such. “There has been an ongoing and persistent attitude that essential and disposable are the same thing,” she said.
Strater said one of the contributing factors that lead to heat illness and death is the nature of the work itself. Often farm work is done as piece work, or paid by the “pound, tree or unit,” Strater said. Piece work creates a “perverse incentive” to push people past their body’s breaking point, she said.
“If [workers] stop and take a break, that literally costs them money. If they hydrate themselves, adequately, they are going to have to go to the bathroom — that is actually costing them money,” Strater said. “There’s this intentional economic push to drive them to work as fast as possible, even at the risk of their health.”
Strater said the UFW and other advocates raised all the alarm bells they could with lawmakers to create more protections for workers, but the emergency rules Washington passed fell short of what was needed. The emergency rules require employers to offer shade and other ways to cool down when the temperatures reach 100 degrees, plus 10-minute rest breaks every two hours. Combined with existing rules, it also requires cool water when temps reach 89 and additional paid rest when needed.
“When I saw the emergency rules, my gut dropped because 100 degrees is ridiculous. That is way too hot,” Strater said. “I asked them then, and I’ve asked every person I’ve talked to since then, where does that number come from? Because it does not come from science. It did not come from medical experts. It did not come from public health data.”
A spokesperson from the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries described how they arrived at the heat thresholds, saying, “Our existing heat rules kick in at 89 degrees and require employers to take steps to protect workers from possible heat related illness. The emergency rules provide additional requirements for extremely high heat. We used NOAA’s heat index as a guide and set the emergency rule at 100 degrees. At that point, there are additional requirements for employers. We’re working on a permanent rule that could lower these trigger temperatures further.”
Oregon’s July emergency rules, seen as the most protective in the country, require shade and adequate drinking water when the heat index is at or above 80 degrees, with added measures as the heat rises.
To move forward, we need to understand how we got here. In the 1930s, the New Deal passed and offered new labor protections for workers, but excluded farmworkers and domestic workers — jobs largely held by Southern African Americans, a decision with roots in slavery and seen as a “race-neutral proxy for excluding blacks from statutory benefits and protections made available to most whites,” according to a Loyola University report.
While the workers may have changed, the policy remains. Farmworkers are still not protected by the National Labor Relations Act and most provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Worse, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that farmworker union organizers could no longer enter farms and talk to workers during nonwork hours.
In March, several Democratic U.S. senators and representatives introduced the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act to create a federal heat standard for workers, including paid work breaks in cool spaces, access to water and other measures. The act was named for a worker who died in 2004 after working in 105 degree temperatures.
Strater said to prevent future deaths, we need to shift our policies and our thinking. “[People] need to understand the labor that was going on behind the scenes to make sure that there’s food in the kitchen,” she said. Strater said workers need a path to citizenship, legal status and heat protection, and “they need to be treated like the lives of these men and women and children are worth as much as anyone else’s.”
As Vargas’ daughter said of her father, “He didn’t deserve to go out like this.” She is right. We have the power to make sure no one else suffers another wholly preventable and unnecessary death.