Wine Country Fires Yet Another Blow to Farmworkers Reeling From COVID-19

Jose Ortiz harvests grapes at Garton Vineyards in Napa on Sept. 30, 2020. As many wineries abandon their smoke-damaged grapes, workers who were counting on income from the grape harvest are being left in the lurch. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

As the Glass Fire tore through Sonoma and Napa counties uncontained on Tuesday, Guillermo Herrera and five co-workers hauled equipment onto trucks, preparing to pick a batch of grapes from a nearby vineyard.

It’s the harvest season in wine country. But Herrera, who manages a crew of up to 100 field workers, said jobs like this are scarce, as this season’s wildfires have drastically cut available work in the vineyards.

Since heavy smoke exposure can ruin grapes, many growers are leaving potentially smoke-tainted fruit on the vine. That means harvesters are out of work, Herrera said.

“I’m getting calls left and right, day in, day out, of folks looking to work,” said Herrera, who also runs his own wine company, Herencia del Valle. “Five or six of my clients aren’t going to pick any of their fruit this year. Zero.”

The Glass Fire is the latest in a series of blows to the area’s farmworkers and other low-wage immigrant workers, who were already struggling with income losses and health impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Immigrants who are undocumented — including an estimated 56% of farmworkers statewide — are not eligible for unemployment insurance, coronavirus relief or other government aid.

And even though their labor is critical to the local economy, many immigrant workers lack a safety net or savings to weather this series of crises, said Gabriel Machabanski, associate director at the Graton Day Labor Center in Sonoma County.

“It’s the compounding impact of fires on top of a pandemic,” Machabanski said. “Day laborers, domestic workers, farmworkers have seen a significant decrease in the amount of employment opportunities they have... their livelihood is precarious from one week to the next.”

Workers harvest grapes at Garton Vineyards in Napa on Sept. 30, 2020.
Workers harvest grapes at Garton Vineyards in Napa on Sept. 30, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Agricultural workers in particular depend on what they earn during the two-month harvest to survive through the winter, until jobs in the fields pick up again, said Ezequiel Guzman, president of the nonprofit Latinos Unidos del Condado de Sonoma.

He said this week about 350 families in the agricultural town of Cloverdale came to get bags of flour, rice, beans and other staples at an event put on by the Redwood Empire Food Bank, triple the number than in past weeks.

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“People need to understand the hidden devastation these fires have brought on farmworkers economically,” said Guzman, a longtime advocate for agricultural workers. “How are they going to pay rent? How are they going to feed their families?”

Those who are able to land jobs rescuing grapes that have not yet been damaged by smoke or fire, put their health and safety at risk — from both smoke and COVID-19 — because they need to make a living, said Gervacio Peña Lopez, director of Movimiento Cultural de la Unión Indígena, which supports indigenous immigrants from Mexico, many of them undocumented farmworkers.

“They take the risk because it’s like they have no other choice,” said Peña Lopez, in Spanish.

Grapes wither on the vine as smoke from the Glass Fire fills the sky at a vineyard near Calistoga on Sept. 30.
Grapes wither on the vine as smoke from the Glass Fire fills the sky at a vineyard near Calistoga on Sept. 30. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

On Tuesday afternoon, Peña Lopez drove to KBBF, a radio station in Santa Rosa, to co-host a show with the latest fire information and emergency resources for local families who speak Triqui, Mixteco and Chatino.

“We try to inform them how to protect themselves, and that they need to make sure to wear a mask,” he added. “But sometimes, that may not be enough.”

Peña Lopez said since the pandemic began, many farmworkers have contracted COVID-19 while commuting to work in crowded vehicles, or living in overcrowded housing, which many do because of the high cost of rent in the area.

But people may be afraid of getting tested for the coronavirus, because a positive result would mean spending two weeks in quarantine and without work, he said.

COVID-19 infected many of the employees at Encanto Vineyards in St. Helena, said Enrique Lopez, owner of the winery. Then his family also became ill in August.

"Everybody got COVID," he said. "My wife, my little one — she was nine months — my mother-in-law who is here visiting."

Enrique Lopez, of Servin-Lopez Vineyard Management, at Garton Vineyards in Napa on Sept. 30.
Enrique Lopez, of Servin-Lopez Vineyard Management, at Garton Vineyards in Napa on Sept. 30. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Many low-wage workers in the hospitality and agriculture industries who have seen their income drop during the pandemic are now facing further economic losses — as well as evacuations — due to the fires, said Susana Garcia, with the social equity nonprofit On The Move.

“It’s just very unfortunate to see pretty much the same families getting hit after hit after hit, and to be impacted in this way,” said Garcia, who directs a program that has channeled private donations to hundreds of undocumented residents in Napa since the pandemic began.

But advocates Peña Lopez, Guzman and Machabanski worry that a population already vulnerable to the respiratory damage of COVID-19, could face another risk from harmful smoke near fires. They all said some farmworkers have reported that their employers have not given them adequate protective equipment for outdoor work.

Under California regulations, if the Air Quality Index is 151 or higher, employers must provide workers laboring outdoors free respirators, such as an N95 mask, and training on how to use them properly.

Andrew Smith, Sonoma County’s agriculture commissioner said he was not aware of any violation of the policy.

“If this is happening, that’s not good,” Smith said. “But to my knowledge, there is not a documented case of this happening in Sonoma County. At this point, they are allegations.”

The Glass Fire burns behind a vineyard on Highway 29 north of Calistoga on Sept. 30.
The Glass Fire burns behind a vineyard on Highway 29 north of Calistoga on Sept. 30. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) is in charge of investigating complaints of violations, and individuals may report those to the agency, which does not ask about immigration status.

Since the Walbridge Fire last month, Smith said his office has helped hundreds of wineries, livestock operators, nurseries and other agricultural businesses to get verified as such, so they can request permission from law enforcement to enter evacuation areas to take care of essential functions such as harvesting grapes or feeding cattle.

“If they can’t get the work done, they can’t pay their employees, take crops to the market and their business may not survive,” he said. “Farming and agriculture doesn’t stop because there is a declared emergency.”

Smith said the Agriculture Commissioner’s office issued about 300 “access verifications” during the Walbridge Fire, and has received about 30 additional requests during the Glass Fire so far. His office has a supply of N95 masks available to distribute to workers through community based organizations and businesses, he said.

Resources for Immigrant Workers

These organizations offer cash assistance to undocumented immigrants in wine country:

Find a full list of organizations providing assistance in Northern California here via the California Immigrant Resilience Fund.

Find COVID-19-related resources from the state of California for immigrants in Spanish, Vietnamese and other languages here.

KQED's Sam Harnett contributed to this report.