When going through loss, one thing that’s curious to note is the merciless, onward march of time. “Time stops for no one,” goes one adage, or – somewhat less helpfully – “time heals all wounds.” (Of course, it doesn’t, really).
For farmworkers who are continuously being exposed to COVID-19, getting sick, grappling with the mental terror of missing work and losing income, falling behind in their rent, getting evicted even while dealing with sick family members, etc., time does not feel like their friend right now. Instead of healing wounds or resolving worries, it is merely opening up the opportunity for more calamities to come to pass on top of the ones that are already occurring: hurricanes, ICE deportations, chilling anti-immigrant sentiment, cataclysmic weather events, etc., and, over and above it all, the worst pandemic the world has seen in generations.
For farmworkers, 2020 is the disaster that just won’t stop.
Summer has been a godsend for many, thanks to the reduced risk of COVID-19 transmission when one is outdoors. Unfortunately, the hot, dry weather has brought additional challenges for outdoor workers: first, the danger of heat stroke – brought home for the farmworker community yet again when 26-year-old Jorge Alberto Ibarra Juarez, an H-2A farmworker, died from heat stroke in July. Now, raging wildfires have been having a record-breaking year, chewing through millions of acres of land and filling farmworkers’ lungs with carcinogenic ash and smoke.
Juanita Ontiveros, attorney for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, surveyed conditions in California fields and gave this report to Cap Radio:
The air is suffocating, you can smell the smoke, thick — you can literally taste it. And the particles, you see people spitting things out. It is like a thick rain of ashes falling down. They’re coughing, their eyes are watery and red and itchy, many of the crews are being let go earlier, though not all labor contractors and growers are sensitive to the workers’ needs.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection keeps a running list of acreage and fire incidents by year. So far in 2020, 1.6 million acres have burned in California; by comparison, only 260,000 acres burned the entire year in 2019. N-95 respirators are absolutely necessary for performing farmwork under these conditions, but weren’t those being used for something already…? Oh, right, the pandemic.
And in case you thought wildfires were a problem only for farmworkers in California, think again: wildfires have been sweeping across 14 other states as well. Our friends at El Centro de Hospitalidad in Palisade, CO, shared the above photos by Jim Cox and Claudia Scritchfield of the hazy air that farmworkers are harvesting peaches in. Ironically, farmworkers with work in Palisade may feel like the lucky ones, as they have managed to stayed employed through the pandemic, as well as through a late frost that killed many peach blossoms in April, sending a lot of their co-workers home.
Lucky to be inhaling smoke on the job? Yes, because the alternative is to be inhaling it at home with no way to pay the rent. With so many crises interrupting their ability to earn a paycheck, that’s what many farmworkers are up against, especially now that coronavirus-related eviction stays have expired last month. Affordable Housing and Finance predicts that “30 million to 40 million people could be at risk of eviction in the next several months.” According to the LATimes, some of those evictions are already happening, most of all for those who live and work in a “shadow economy” whose landlords are accountable to no one, because they were never officially leasing space in the first place. That, of course, describes farmworkers to a T, as many are undocumented workers forced to find creative housing solutions in high-cost residential areas.
But when it rains it pours. As we go to publish, Louisiana and Texas are bracing for the now-Category 4 storm “Laura,” due to make landfall later tonight. Meanwhile, the Midwest is still reeling from the inland hurricane that swept through farmland from August 10-11th, leaving two dead and millions of acres of damaged crops in its wake. Thankfully, coronavirus cases are down in the U.S., but not for essential workers.
Farmworkers have been hit so hard, on all sides, like a punching bag. And, while we often laud them for accomplishing the impossible, the reality is that some of them don’t. Here at AFOP, we worry about those farmworkers, even while we provide assistance to as many as of them as we can. Because if there was ever a “rainy day” when they could use a little extra support, it’s surely right now.