Central Coast Farmworkers Worked Through Thomas Fire Without Health Protections

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CAUSE members hand out N95 protective masks to field workers on Dec. 7, 2017. (Courtest of CAUSE)

More than 100,000 people have been evacuated from the Thomas Fire burning in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. But workers in the area’s agricultural fields stayed on the job, breathing in smoke and ash as they picked strawberry and celery crops.

Farmworker advocacy groups say they noticed, the day after the fire started, thousands of workers in the fields without protective equipment.

"They were telling us to hurry up, to keep working harder because it was a bad environment and we had to pick the produce. The tractor was moving faster than we were moving, and they were just telling us to hurry up and the supervisor was telling us to push more," said one farmworker, who requested anonymity for fear of losing his job.

He said he was told to work more quickly so he wouldn’t work as long in the falling ash and thick smoke.

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The Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) sprang into action, buying masks and attempting to distribute them. Lucas Zucker of CAUSE said that while the workers eagerly accepted the masks, their supervisors behaved differently.

Members of the advocacy group CAUSE hand out masks to farmworkers in Ventura before, they say, being kicked off the farm by supervisors. (Courtesy of CAUSE)

"On some farms, owners and supervisors [were] kind of kicking people off. We've had some pretty, you know, pretty hostile confrontations," Zucker said.

"I'm going to give them credit for trying to take action to help out. You know, it's a fairly vulnerable population out there, very important to our industry, but they're trying to go directly into fields and hand out masks," said John Krist, CEO of the Ventura County Farm Bureau.

"I think in the future we need to make sure we have a better working relationship with those organizations, because what they're doing actually is trespassing," Krist said.

Cal/OSHA monitors workplace safety, and agency spokeswoman Erika Monterroza says while it’s up to farm owners to take the steps necessary to protect their workers, Cal/OSHA is focused on ensuring they do.

"We take reports of work site hazards very, very seriously. And we also take workers rights very seriously," Monterroza said.

Community groups like CAUSE say even days after the fire started, the majority of growers still weren’t handing out masks.