While countless suffered through the Pacific Northwest heat waves this summer, some of Oregon’s most vulnerable communities faced the harshest conditions. In the Pacific Northwest, those at risk were outdoor workers, the elderly and people experiencing homelessness. Journalist Jeff Goodell chronicles the life and death of Sebastian Perez, an immigrant farm worker in Oregon who died during the record-breaking heat at the end of June. Goodell joins us to give details on his Rolling Stone story and how the state could do a better job of protecting workers.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Two months ago today, the so-called ‘heat dome’ brought unprecedented high temperatures to the Pacific Northwest. It wasn’t just historic, it was deadly. According to the New York Times, 1000 people in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia died specifically because of the heat. One of them was an Oregon farmworker who was originally from Guatemala. Sebastian Perez was 38 years old. He was working at a nursery in Saint Paul.
Jeff Goodell, a longtime reporter on climate change, wrote recently about Perez and the larger context of deadly heat, for Rolling Stone magazine, where he is a contributing editor. He joins me now. Jeff Goodell, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Jeff Goodell: Hi, thanks for having me.
Miller: Thanks for joining us. I want to start with, to my ear, the most dramatic line you had in your recent article. You wrote “This was not an accident, or a tragic result of unforeseen circumstances, it was a kind of murder.” What do you mean?
Goodell: You know, I know that sounds like a kind of inflammatory line, but I really mean it, and I don’t think it’s wrong or an overstatement. We have known for 30 years that the science of climate change is real, that our planet is heating up, that heat waves are going to get hotter and hotter. We have known for a very long time that the people who are going to suffer most from this are people who are vulnerable, people who are working outdoors, people who don’t have the luxury as you and I do of sitting in air conditioned rooms. So, when you put a man like Sebastian Perez out in the field on 107 degree day, and have him carry around 30lb pipes all day with no shade accessible, and nobody there to watch over him or see how he’s doing … I mean, what else do you call that? I think it’s really not an overstatement to say that this is not just a preventable death, but a kind of collective, deliberate action on our part, all of our parts, that led to his death.
Miller: So let’s go back a bit, for more context on Perez himself. Before we dig deeper into the kind of systemic issues that you’re getting into there: you talked to Perez’s wife, Maria. What did you learn about his life, and their life together in Guatemala?
Goodell: Well, it was really moving. I think that the reason I decided to write this story, in fact, was because of my conversations with her. I had initially started exploring the story, and then I connected with her and she told me the story of their lives, how he grew up in Guatemala. His family had to flee Guatemala briefly because of the civil war. They lived in Mexico for a short time, came back, and then in the sort of war-torn Guatemala, tried to build a life for themselves. They had been married eight years. He had tried various kinds of farmworking and things like that in Guatemala, and knew that there was basically no future for him there. He wanted to build a house for his wife there, [but] she needed a medical procedure so that she could get pregnant, and he wanted to provide that for her.
He didn’t have very many options, and one of the options was to pay a Coyote $12,000 to ensure his passage to the United States. He came to Oregon to work on a nursery, that Ernst Nursery & Farms in Portland where his cousin was working. His plan was to stay there for three or four years, and then go back and build a house for Maria and build a life together there. It was really moving, because he’s, in a certain way, the embodiment of a kind of American Dream, and why people have come to America for generations.
He was a very clean living person. He didn’t drink, he didn’t party, he went to church. He was, from all I can tell, a really wonderful person. That moved me a lot, in telling this story.
Miller: What did you hear about him from his fellow farmworkers? He had been in Oregon for about two months at the time of his death.
Goodell: Well, I heard from his fellow farmworkers. I went to the house where he lived. I talked to his cousin and other people, and he lived a very simple life. It was built around the calculation of “How much money can I make? How much money can I save?” His first job was to try to pay back the Coyote. $12,000 is a lot of money to anybody, but particularly to somebody who’s making $14 an hour working out in the field. His first goal was to pay back that debt. It was essentially a loan, and one of his family members in Guatemala had put up what amounts to a house title and escrow to guarantee that loan. His first job was to pay that back, so basically he lived a very simple existence here in Oregon. He worked, he came home, he cooked simple meals, he went to bed, he went to church, he went to work, he saved his money. He sent money back to Maria in Guatemala, sent money to his Coyote, and that was it.
Miller: What were you able to piece together about what happened to Sebastian Perez on June 26th?
Goodell: It’s interesting; I talked to Maria, and she had told me that, the night before, she had talked to him. He was also very close to his mother, who was in Guatemala, and his mother had talked to him that night. They had both talked about the heat wave that’s coming. They knew that a heat wave was coming and they said “Sebastian, are you going to be okay? Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” And he said “Yes, I will be okay.”
He went to work that morning. It was a Saturday, and he had volunteered for an extra shift, in order to make more money. He had an option of going off to pick blueberries that day, but he decided instead to take a job moving irrigation pipes around, because it paid a little bit more money.
He was with five other workers that morning. They started off in the morning. They were each working separately, in separate fields, on their own, moving this pipe around. I know I talked to people who saw him at a brief break at lunch around 12:00. He seemed okay then. It was a very very hot day. They all talked about that. Then, he went off to work in a different corner of the field. The other workers knocked off at around 2:30 or three o’clock, and they couldn’t find Sebastian, so they went out looking for him. He was laying in the field, collapsed, near death.
They drug him over to the shade of a Douglas fir tree nearby, a couple hundred yards away. They gave him water and tried to revive him. By the time the ambulance got there from St Paul’s, he was dead.
Miller: What we’re going to talk about now could be upsetting to some people, but I think it’s actually really important to reckon with the physical realities of extreme heat the way you do in your article. What happens to a human body when it just gets too hot to cool down?
Goodell: Well, it’s a very complex process. People talk about heat stroke, and that’s a very well-studied phenomenon, but people don’t really realize the details of what happens. (I would encourage everyone to look at the article, because I go into some detail about it.) The short version of it is, the first thing that happens is that your heart starts pumping really hard, and it starts trying to push as much of your blood toward the surface of your skin as possible, because, of course, our only kind of cooling mechanism is sweat, right? And evaporation. So your blood works really hard to push all the blood away from the inner part of your body, towards the surface of your body.
That puts a lot of strain on the heart, which is why people who have heart conditions are so vulnerable during heat. The other thing that happens is that blood being pulled away from your internal organs also frequently causes leakage in some of those organs. You start to get, especially in your intestines and gut area, bacteria leaking out of your gut into the rest of your body. This causes a kind of sepsis, a kind of poisoning of your body, which causes your immune system to kind of go crazy, and your heart to beat faster.
If you don’t get cooled down soon, what really starts to happen is the membranes of the cells in your body, the lipids, they begin to actually melt, and your cells literally begin to unravel. This happens particularly in places like your kidneys; the little tubes and your kidneys that filter out blood, they literally begin to melt. I don’t mean to be crude,, but it’s a comparison that scientists and doctors have used with me: it’s not unlike what happens to meat on a grill. It starts to change, the fat starts to melt away. It’s your body kind of disassembling itself, and that leads to hemorrhaging and eventually death.
For every person, it’s a little bit of a different pathway, but it’s pretty horrendous.
Miller: You have noted that, in addition to death, for all the reasons you just outlined, that prolonged work in extreme heat can actually lead to chronic health problems as well. A lot of people may have the notion that hydration can stave off problems from serious heat. Is that the case?
Goodell: I’m really glad you brought that up, because that’s really an important point. A lot of people have the idea that you’re okay if it’s really hot during the heatwave, as long as you have water, and that’s simply not true. What is true is that it’s really important to have water, because you need to be hydrated in order to sweat. If you begin to sweat too much, and you don’t replenish it with water, you lose the ability to sweat and that just magnifies everything.
But I’ve talked to a lot of experts about this, and it also just makes common sense; it takes a long time, five or six hours of serious sweating, to really become dehydrated. It takes a while. You can die of heat stroke in 20 minutes, even if you’re fully hydrated, if you’re outdoors. It happens all the time, to, for example, marathon runners, sprinters. I’ve just been reporting on a story about an 18 year old kid who went out for a six-mile run on a hot day in Washington D. C. and died.
Your body manufacturers heat. Your body is a heat engine. On a hot day, if you’re running, it’s manufacturing heat inside, and no matter how much water you have in your system or you’re drinking, you will still collapse from heat stroke. Drinking water is important, but it is not going to save you.
Miller: Let’s turn back to the systemic issues that you talked about at the beginning. This heat event, it was not like a tornado or an earthquake that comes with no warning. Meteorologist told us a week ahead of time “This is going to be historic. It could be something we’ve never seen before.” Growers and farm worker organizers and unions, they all were talking about this. How much did growers in the Willamette Valley heed the call to actually be prepared to keep their workers safe?
Goodell: Well, I certainly can’t speak for them all. I can’t generalize about it, but I can certainly say that the evidence points to what happened at the Ernst Farm and Nursery, as not being very prepared at all. I mean, you had Sebastian Perez out there hauling around heavy pipes for eight hours and 107 degree weather. No shade around. That is not taking precautions very seriously, and I think, from my broad experience in reporting this story and thinking about it is, some nurseries and growers do a better job than others, but really there’s not a lot of precautions and concerns taken for this.
I was out there for four or five days reporting this story, driving around and talking to many growers and to farmworkers. This was after Oregon had passed some emergency heat regulations that had come about after the heat wave, which required shade for farmworkers after 80 degrees. Above that, they’re required [to have] access to shade.
Miller: And more stringent requirements when temperatures go 90 or above. So this was after that?
Goodell: Right. And I was out there. It was 92 to 93 degrees when I was out there, and I saw and talked to no workers, zero of the ones I talked to, who had access to any kind of special shade or anything like that. So even after the regulations were in place, I myself did not witness any shade. And nor did [those] I talked to, of the dozen two dozen workers that I talked to, have any of them have any access to that shade. So that will tell you something.
Miller: So, in that sense, what you’re saying is that, even in Oregon, where there are rules, which is relatively rare in the US, from your reporting, those rules weren’t being followed. Meanwhile, at the federal level, there are no workplace rules regarding heat. Why not?
Goodell: Nope. That’s a very good question. There’s no rules against putting someone to work in a warehouse that’s 130° and telling him to go move boxes around. I mean, that’s insane, right? It’s obviously a deadly threat to workers of all sorts, not just outdoor workers. A roofer died in Oregon during this heatwave. A warehouse worker died in Oregon during this heatwave. There are no federal rules of any sort restricting what kind of heat conditions workers can be under. There’s a lot of reasons for that, I think, partly because it’s hard to define heat as a standard. It’s not that hard, but there’s different kinds of heat, moist heat and dry heat. All that kind of thing. There’s also a lot of lobbying by industry against it, because they don’t want additional regulations of any sort.
And finally, I think that there’s just a lot of, certainly with farmworkers, is just out and out racism and carelessness about the plight of farmworkers, which I would think most of your listeners know, goes way back. And I think that this is the kind of embodiment of that.
Miller: Do you see a direct connection between Perez’s death and his status as an undocumented farmworker?
Goodell: Oh absolutely. First of all, it’s basically only undocumented farmworkers who are out there. I was driving around with an organizer who works with a lot of growers in Oregon, and he pointed out to me that he had been working there for 20 years, or 15 years, and he had never seen a farmworker who wasn’t either undocumented or an immigrant or hispanic, and every grower is white and a U. S. Citizen. There’s just a very strong racial line out here in this world. It’s still The Grapes of Wrath in a certain way. And there’s just not a lot of concern or care about these undocumented workers, they’re just seen as replaceable and expendable. I know that sounds blunt and heartless, but I just think that that’s the real truth about the way things work. There are of course exceptions, but I think that’s broadly the evidence that I saw while I was out there.
Miller: Jeff Goodell, thanks very much for your time today. I appreciate it.
Goodell: Thanks for having me.
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