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By Teresa Cotsirilos
As a vineyard worker in California’s Sonoma County, Sandra de Leon has sloshed through flooded fields in leaky boots, picked grapes for 10 hours straight in 100-degree heat and worked through hazardous smoke conditions during wildfires. But it was California’s recent winter storms that really worried her. For weeks she wasn’t able to work at all. “I don’t know about everyone else, but I was personally able to pay my rent in January,” she told me in mid-January. “But I’m worried about next month.”
Throughout California, farmworkers like de Leon are grappling with a similar crisis. Extreme weather fueled by climate change is rattling the state’s agricultural sector, and many farm laborers have lost work to these disasters, which has exacerbated food insecurity in farmworker communities. Those who do keep their jobs are often pressured to work through hazardous conditions, some of which can be life-threatening.
In her spare time, de Leon works with the labor advocacy group North Bay Jobs with Justice, and to her, the root of this crisis is obvious: farmworkers are poorly paid, and their employers should compensate them for the unstable, dangerous work they do.“If we help them [the growers] by working on their plants—and thanks to our work, they make profits—then why shouldn’t they help us?” she says.
In California, workers, labor organizers and progressive political leaders are pushing for a range of new policies to support and compensate farmworkers subjected to climate disasters. To better understand these policies, I talked to Mike Méndez, an assistant professor of environmental planning at University of California, Irvine who studies climate inequity in farmworker communities. (In part two of this interview series, I will explore the financial cost of these programs, as well as agricultural employers’ reactions to them.) This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The idea of hazard pay for farmworkers has gained some traction in California In 2021, for instance, Coachella became the first municipality in the nation to require it. But agricultural employers are pretty resistant to it.
In any industry, there’s going to be pushback against hazard pay. We saw important precedents set in the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, when local governments in the state created hazard pay for some essential workers. That included grocery workers, who [like farmworkers] are on the frontlines of our food system. They’re exposing themselves to daily crowds of people who are trying to get food in a pandemic. And there was industry pushback. In Long Beach, a supermarket closed one of its stores, citing the city council’s decision to adopt hazard pay for grocery workers.
When you’re asking people to risk their lives, health and livelihoods, you should compensate them well. These industries are continuing to make revenue during emergencies, while their employees are absorbing the risk—not the corporate managers themselves.
Last year, the California legislature debated several bills that would extend social benefits to farmworkers affected by climate change. Senate Bill 1066, for instance, would have paid $1,000 a month for three years to eligible farmworkers who have lost work to the state’s historic drought. Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed it, claiming it was too expensive. Are these kinds of policies the right approach?
Absolutely. For the most part, disasters disproportionately impact undocumented migrants and farmworkers because they’re not integrated into our society and governance. In a sense, they’re rendered invisible in our legal, political and disaster-relief infrastructure. Undocumented residents do not have access to various state, local and federal disaster assistance funds because of their immigration status. They cannot access burial funds through FEMA or rebuilding assistance if a disaster damages their personal property. They’re ineligible for unemployment benefits. So if you really want to reduce disaster risk and enhance disaster resilience, it starts with the social integration of migrants—and including them in our social safety net programs.
Providing more accessible and affordable healthcare to all residents of California, regardless of immigration status, will also make a big difference. [Last year, California expanded Medi-Cal, the state’s version of Medicaid, to all eligible adult residents regardless of their immigration status.] We’ve taken important strides there, and I’m very thankful for that.
One of the recommendations from our research is to create a [state-funded] undocumented disaster relief fund, modeled on the first two undocumented disaster relief funds in California: Sonoma County’s UndocuFund, launched in 2017 after the Tubbs Fire, and the 805 UndocuFund in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, launched in 2018 after the Thomas Fire. Because undocumented migrants are ineligible for federal disaster assistance, state governments need to ensure that when a disaster happens, we have a funded and stable source of assistance for this population.
Several of your studies also focus on emergency preparedness in farmworker communities, which are often neglected by local disaster response. Are there specific strategies that are effective?
One solution would be to bring in trusted organizations—civil society groups, faith-based organizations—that are close to migrant populations. And bring them before disaster happens. Build those relationships and create those networks so you’re able to get the resources, information and emergency alerts out to these marginalized communities.
Then there’s language justice. We think of California as being very progressive, and in particular that Latinos are empowered, but that’s a fallacy. A lot of agricultural regions are essentially purple—if not red—regions politically, and in wildfire events there are often no live translations of emergency alerts in Spanish, let alone any Indigenous languages.
So another solution would be to ensure that our offices of disaster response and offices of equity [which address systemic discrimination and inequities] are culturally and linguistically competent, and understand how to provide the resources and information that’s most culturally appropriate and unbiased.
These disparate impacts from disasters that we see in the lowest socioeconomic groups—in particular farmworkers, undocumented Latinos, Indigenous migrants—are not happening by accident. Rather, policymakers at the federal, state and local level are making political choices that are intentionally withholding vital disaster preparedness resources from these individuals. First and foremost, we need to acknowledge that systemic inequality.