Farmworkers seek more legal protections amid rising danger from heat

Anabel Munoz Image
Saturday, July 17, 2021
Farmworkers seek legal protections amid increasing heat danger
As farmworkers face increasing danger from rising heat levels, advocates are pushing for more protections as well as citizenship.

MOORPARK, Calif. (KABC) -- Patricia Gutierrez has more than two decades of experience as a farmworker and has spent about half of her career in Moorpark.

As she walked toward the field to begin harvesting leeks, she told Eyewitness News that up until recently, women there didn't harvest leeks because it's a tough job.

"It hurts your hands and back a lot," she said.

But she adds that anything can be done - if you do it with ganitas. It's a Spanish expression that describes a desire toward excellence, paired with action.

Gutierrez is a wife, mother and a United Farm Workers union leader.

"That's what motivated me more than anything - I don't like injustices," she said.

Patricia Gutierrez works at a farm in Moorpark, CA. She began developing her skills in agriculture as a teen, more than two decades ago.

There's shade and water for breaks where she works, which is critical and required by California law.

But Gutierrez knows of workers who are threatened with immigration retaliation when they try to speak up for their rights. Since they're often paid per box, some farmworkers dangerously push through heat stress.

Temperatures in Moorpark can reach the triple digits, Gutierrez said. "I've always told them, 'We only have one life and it's worth more than any job,' " she said.

According to an Environmental Research Letters study, U.S. farm workers are 20 times more likely to die of heat-related illness than other workers.

"Unfortunately, we had a couple of deaths in the Pacific Northwest," said UFW president Teresa Romero.

The same study found that in places like Riverside County, farmworkers experience an average of 42 days of unsafe heat conditions every year, and it could grow to 77 days in the next three decades - and then 105 days in 70 years due to rising global temperatures.

In California, there are more legal protections but Romero explained that's not enough.

"We like to say within the UFW that the laws in the books are not the laws in the fields. Unfortunately, we still have employers that are not complying with that," said Romero.

Gutierrez feels her employer listens to workers' concerns, which she helps advocate for.

That's not the case for all farmworkers, one organizer stressed.

UFW is pushing for federal protections and urging the Senate to act on the Farm Worker Modernization Act, which passed in the House with bipartisan support. It would help grant farmworkers authorized immigration status. According to the Center for Farmworker Families, about 75% of California farmworkers are undocumented.

"They cannot just drag their feet because it is going to affect all of us," Romero said.

Patricia Gutierrez wears a hat that reads "100% essential" in Spanish. She made it at the start of the pandemic, proud farmworkers were acknowledged as essential and important.

Gutierrez shields her face from the sun with a hat that reads "100% essential" in Spanish. She wrote it at the start of the pandemic.

"They gave us a paper that said we had to work because vegetables were needed on the table for our families," she said.

"In the end, I'm filled with so much pride," she said, as she described how she felt when people acknowledged farmworkers as important and essential workers.

She hasn't seen her parents in Mexico since she was a teen and said that's the saddest experience for many undocumented workers whose loved ones pass away before they can return. Gutierrez said she has faith this year things will change.

"I've always prayed," she said. "Hopefully, God hears us."