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California's Farmworkers Are on the Front Lines of Climate Change

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A man in a red hat with arms outstretched stands among rows of cows in pens seemingly ushering them forward towards the camera.
José Federico Sierra herds pregnant cows toward a trailer at the farm where he works in Gustine, on June 21, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

José Federico Sierra remembers the summer when ash rained down like snow and clouds of wildfire smoke reddened the sky and choked his lungs.

That was three years ago, as the SCU Lightning Complex Fire raged across hundreds of thousands of acres just a few miles west of Gustine, the San Joaquin Valley town where Sierra works at a large dairy farm.

Fires were bad the next year, too. And no matter what, Sierra said, his job keeps him outdoors.

“You can’t change your work if you’re caring for livestock every day,” he said. “You just have to put on a mask and take care of yourself the best you can.”

On a recent sunny day, Sierra was wrangling pregnant cows onto a livestock trailer to transport them to another part of the dairy, where they would give birth. But he hopped down from his pickup truck and greeted his sister Antonia Sierra Martínez, 45, a community health worker with a local nonprofit, Valley Onward.

Cows stand in rows of outdoor pens, some shaded and others in the sun.
Cows stand in a barn in Gustine on June 21, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Though California has been spared major fires so far this year, Sierra Martínez and another community advocate were out surveying farmworkers for a state public health study about the effects of wildfire smoke. Her brother agreed to be interviewed.

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In California’s Central Valley, climate change is making conditions increasingly dangerous for the state’s farmworkers, whose jobs keep them outdoors all day. Even as summer temperatures hit triple digits and the threat of wildfires is ever present, some rural communities are still recovering from last winter’s catastrophic floods.

Two women in black polo shirts smile together with a man and a teenager in front of a large white pick-up truck with a hitch attached to it.
Valley Onward employees Antonia Sierra Martínez (center) and Maria Alapizco (right) speak with José Federico Sierra (far right) at the farm where he works in Gustine while his son, Axel, 12, listens. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“Yes, my asthma — my breathing — was most affected,” said Sierra, recalling the fire in 2020. “It felt like I was gasping for air inside a plastic bag.”

“How did you track whether the air quality was getting better or worse?” Sierra Martínez asked. “For example, did you listen to the radio or use an app?”

“My symptoms told me,” said her brother. “I felt better when the air was cleaner — and when it was harder to breathe, I knew the air was more polluted.”

Rising temperatures, rising risks

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Sierra Martínez told me that she’d developed asthma, too, after moving to Gustine from Mexico to be with her farmworker husband.

Even without wildfires, the San Joaquin Valley has some of the worst pollution in the nation (PDF). And as the weather heats up, the air quality gets worse.

Climate change from carbon emissions is making the valley hotter (PDF). In 2021, Fresno had a record-breaking 69 days where temperatures exceeded 100 degrees.

“How is it possible that we’re living through such a drastic increase in heat?” asked Sierra Martínez. “It’s sad, because here in the valley, most of our people work outside in the fields. They’re exposed to these temperatures from sunup to sundown.”

Two women walk down a sidewalk wearing black polo shirts and baseball caps in a residential neighborhood under bright sun.
Valley Onward employees Maria Alapizco (left) and Antonia Sierra Martínez walk to a home in Gustine to speak with a resident. They interview residents about working conditions and their health as it relates to pollution and toxins they are exposed to in their community and at work. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

California — unlike the federal government — does require employers to provide outdoor workers with shade, water and rest breaks. The state also has standards to protect workers from wildfire smoke. But Sierra Martínez says some bosses are better than others.

“If your supervisor tells you to keep working when you know you need a break, don’t obey him. Just go! Get in the shade!” she tells field-workers.

In California, 90% of farmworkers are immigrants (PDF), most from Mexico. More than half are undocumented. Though most have worked in agriculture here for decades, their tenuous immigration status leaves many afraid to challenge their bosses, for fear they could be fired or deported, said Sierra Martínez.

Michael Méndez, a UC Irvine professor of environmental policy, has studied disaster response efforts and the marginalization of unauthorized immigrants, most of whom have no pathway to legal immigration status in the U.S.

“No other population has experienced this great California climate displacement more than undocumented immigrants, farmworkers and migrant communities,” he said. “From drought that spiraled into extreme wildfire events, to heat waves … to this hydroclimatic whiplash, where we’ve gone from too much dryness to too much wetness, and individuals are being inundated from these extreme storms and failure in our infrastructure and our levees.”

And, Méndez says, that power imbalance is no accident. Political decisions have left many immigrants, especially unauthorized workers, out of the social safety net, even when they are growing the food that supports the state’s population. Undocumented immigrants don’t qualify for disaster assistance or most other forms of federal aid.

“These disparate, disproportionate impacts have been baked into our infrastructure, into our disaster policies that essentially have been withholding vital resources from these communities for decades, if not centuries,” he said.

Shut out from flood relief

On the east side of Merced County, those impacts played out dramatically last January when a levee on an irrigation canal ruptured in a storm, and flooded hundreds of farmworker families in the town of Planada. Residents say the canal was choked with trash and the levee had been neglected.

One recent day, Miriam Herrera Ceja, 28, showed me the flood damage in her rented house, where the floors are buckling and the doors are stuck.

A mother of three and wife of a dairy worker, Herrera Ceja said the flood left her family with a mountain of unexpected expenses. Sewage-laced water ruined the car, as well as the fridge, the oven, the washer and dryer, the furniture and the children’s clothes.

A woman wearing a dark t-shirt holds a baby wearing a camouflage shirt while a small child wearing a grey shirt with blue jeans sits on a swing to the left holding food in their hand.
Miriam Herrera Ceja, 28, holds her toddler, Adriel, while her son Axel, 8, plays on a swing at her home in Planada, on June 20, 2023. She and her farmworker husband have faced severe financial struggles since the January floods in Planada. (Tyche Hendricks/KQED)

With her 1-year-old son, Adriel, on her hip, Herrera Ceja leafed through a stack of medical bills on the kitchen table, amounting to nearly $4,000 she owes for a hospital visit in January, when the baby got sick at the evacuation center.

“We all got sick from the dampness, but the little one had it the worst,” she said. “He couldn’t breathe, and the people at the shelter sent us straight to the hospital.”

Herrera Ceja and her family had settled in Planada a year and a half before the storm hit. They were admitted to the U.S. to seek asylum after her husband was shot, and nearly killed, by members of a criminal organization in their home state of Michoacán, Mexico, she said.

“I was so scared. And the government couldn’t protect us. We had to get out of there,” she said. “Here we were building a new life, starting over from zero. Now we’re left with nothing again.”

In Planada, Herrera Ceja says they feel safe from violence. And she and her husband had saved up a little money to hire an immigration attorney for their asylum case. But now, that money has been spent on a replacement car so he can get to work. And since they don’t have asylum yet, the family was turned down for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Sitting on her front stoop as her oldest child, 8-year-old Axel, played on a swing in the front yard, Herrera Ceja said she knows her family is not the only one suffering.

“I think everyone in the Planada community was set back,” she said. Then with a wry smile, she added, “But we won’t let it break us. We’ve got to keep moving forward.”

An older Latino man wearing a white t-shirt and black shorts stands in front of a house with a garden, pipe materials and a vehicle on the right.
Anastacio Rosales, 70, stands outside his home in Planada, which flooded with 3 feet of water after a levee on an irrigation canal ruptured six months earlier on Jan. 9, 2023. (Tyche Hendricks/KQED)

Even Planada residents with more resources have struggled. Anastacio Rosales, 70, is a U.S. citizen and did get some help from FEMA. But though he’s a homeowner, he wasn’t carrying flood insurance. After water pooled 3 feet deep inside his house, he depended on volunteers to help tear out the sodden Sheetrock so he could rebuild the walls from the studs.

Six months after the floodwaters receded, Rosales is still slowly salvaging and disinfecting his belongings, which are stacked shoulder-high under tarps on his back patio. And, Rosales said, the crop cycle has been thrown off. A semi-retired farmworker, he said he hasn’t been able to get work in the sweet potato fields this year.

“There was so much water in the fields,” he said. “The planting happened really late. So now there’s very little work.”

And many of Rosales’ neighbors who are undocumented immigrants — and also lost jobs due to the storms — are not eligible for federal unemployment insurance. The state Legislature is considering a bill to create a state safety net program for these workers, but Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a similar measure last year, citing fiscal concerns.

A glimmer of hope

Advocates say the flooding in Planada and elsewhere — including the Salinas Valley town of Pajaro, which was swamped after a levee break in March — was preventable, if infrastructure had been properly maintained.

Cars sit in floodwaters in a residential neighborhood.
Cars sit in floodwaters in Planada on Jan. 11, 2023. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“It was just a nightmare this winter, watching this play out first in Planada and then in other communities,” said Madeline Harris of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a Central Valley group that advocates for the rights of rural, lower-income communities. “It was a similar story every time, of a predominantly Latino, farmworker, disadvantaged community that flooded. If their communities had not been neglected for years, this never would have happened.”

But now there is a glimmer of hope for Planada residents like Rosales and Herrera Ceja.

This spring, researchers from the UC Merced Community and Labor Center, partnering with community members and advocates from the Leadership Counsel and other nonprofits, conducted a survey (PDF) to capture the scope of the losses in Planada. The figure they reached to restore the town: $20 million.

And some lawmakers were listening, including Planada’s state Senator Anna Caballero and Assemblymember Esmeralda Soria.

Rows of trees in an orchard line the right hand side of a rural road as seen through the windshield of a car.
Valley Onward employees Antonia Sierra Martínez and Maria Alapizco drive to speak with a resident in Gustine on June 21, 2023. Valley Onward is a nonprofit centered on health equity and empowering women and people of color in Merced County. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Working with lawmakers from the Pajaro area, they were able to ensure that this year’s state budget includes $20 million for Planada, plus another $20 million for Pajaro, to help residents — regardless of immigration status — recover. The funds were approved as part of a larger package to improve flood resilience statewide — in spite of a $31 billion budget gap that lawmakers had to close.

“Placing a line item on the state budget … for the exact amount that we had estimated was needed. This is incredible,” said Edward Flores, co-director of the UC Merced labor center, who conducted the survey.

But Flores says the disaster in Planada — and the magnitude of climate-driven impacts hitting California farmworkers — raise a much bigger question.

“So many workers are excluded from policies that are designed to protect people during times of need,” he said. “And if we’re facing increasing disasters and there’s a gap in our policy that’s not supporting those low-wage workers, then how do we need to change our policies in order to close that gap, to support those workers that are the most vulnerable during these times?”

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