Q&A: Oregon farmworkers face fire risks, lack of clear state protections

By Jenn Chávez (OPB)
Portland, Ore. Sept. 16, 2020 12:30 p.m.

Thick smoke from Oregon’s massive wildfires continues to blanket large swaths of the state, prompting warnings from health experts to stay indoors.


But not everyone can. It’s harvest season at many Oregon farms and vineyards, which means many farmworkers are still outside working in hazardous air.

Reyna Lopez, the executive director of Oregon’s Latinx farmworker union, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, joined OPB “Morning Edition” host Jenn Chavez this week to talk about the dangers, Oregon’s lack of clear rules for how farmworkers are treated and what can be done.

Here are highlights from that conversation; you can use the audio player at the top of this story to listen to the entire conversation.

Jenn Chavez: What have you been hearing from your union members about what conditions they’re experiencing right now?

Reyna Lopez: "They’re still out there making sure Oregonians have food on their tables, and thousands have not received the information that they need in their language. The digital divide is a big barrier. PCUN actually started getting calls and messages from farmworkers across the state who were very confused about the evacuation notices. They were asking about what the protocol is to prioritize their health during these wildfires and not knowing if evacuation centers were going to accept them because of their mixed immigration status. People were also very, very concerned about the fact that they still had to go to work the next day. People were asking, ‘Is it safe? What kind of protection do I need? All I have is this bandana.’


“We’ve been giving the KN95 masks. People really would like to know where they can get these kind of protections and also would like to know if they’re able to have that flexibility to be with their families if their city is in a level two evacuation order. Should they be prioritizing going to work and not losing that day of pay or staying at home and being ready just in case?”

Chavez: In California, OSHA requires employers to take certain safety measures on behalf of workers when the air quality index number is higher than 150. Much of Oregon is currently at or has been much, much higher than that. What’s the status of legally-built-in safety measures in Oregon?

Lopez: "We did get a chance to write our OSHA director and our leaders a letter around wildfire effects on agricultural workers. We would really like to see some kind of standard, some kind of policy that would make this very clear for our communities. And we know that it’s not going to be the last time that climate change is affecting our communities. So we would like to see a standard that is comparable to what is in California.

“We did actually get a response to that very same day from the OSHA director. But it’s just guidance, a recommendation. It’s not really a standard, and it’s not really a requirement.”

Chavez: What have you heard about what employers in Oregon are doing to try to protect workers?

Lopez: "It’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, we are hearing about people having to make a really tough choice to call it, where people aren’t going to come to work. The risk right there is that food doesn’t get picked and you run the risk of rotting. I feel for farmers right now who are having to make that tough choice. But we’re also hearing that people are not stopping working with the hazardous air, with the hazardous conditions, We know that we run a risk for the actual harvest getting picked if people aren’t at work.

“From the worker’s perspective, missing one day of work will affect the family in a big way. People are making between $24,000 to $25,000 a year, but also people’s health is very important and folks are not just seeing what outside looks like, but they’re literally feeling the effects in their bodies. I’m feeling for everyone who is out there right now because we know that something needs to be done, and we need to come together to figure out what that solution is.”

Chavez: Migrant farmworkers were already struggling because of COVID-19. The virus has disproportionately impacted Latinx people. Despite being considered essential workers, seasonal farmworkers often lack access to federal benefits. Has this new overlapping crisis of wildfires made things worse?

Lopez: "Frankly, we have been in emergency mode all year. We’ve been seeing a lot of people coming together to try to really create a rapid response network for communities who need help right away. One of the big responses to that was the Oregon Worker Relief Fund, which was direct emergency relief — cash supports — for workers who are essential workers but got left out completely from the federal relief; they’re not eligible for unemployment insurance due to mixed immigration status and also the Farmworker Quarantine Fund that, specifically to allow farmworkers who may not have paid leave through their work or are too afraid to lose those two weeks of pay to take quarantine or isolation time.

“Those programs, actually, and all of the programs that we have had since COVID-19 started in terms of rapid response in deploying, KN95 masks, hygiene equipment, sanitation products, food boxes, all that stuff, everything that we’ve been doing there has actually been moved into being just general emergency response.”


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