Advocates call for more protections for Oregon farm workers after deadly heat wave
ST PAUL, Ore. – Missing a few hours of work could mean families of immigrant farm workers missing their next meal.
So even as the historic heat wave scorched the Pacific Northwest, thousands of immigrants went to work in fields, farms and nurseries.
“A lot of them are paid by the piece. So they are not paid by the hour, they are paid according to the volume of harvest that they are able to bring,” said Elizabeth Strater, United Farm Workers’ director of strategic campaigns. “It’s sick. It’s sick how their productivity is literally pitted directly against their health and their lives.”
An immigrant worker from St. Paul, Oregon, was among those who died in the heat wave.
Sebastian Francisco Perez collapsed in a nursery during record high temperatures. He immigrated from Guatemala just months before providing for his wife.
“She wanted to start fertility treatment, so he came here to save money and help her pay for it,” PCUN executive director Reyna Lopez said.
After moving irrigation lines to Ernst Nursery and Farms in St. Paul on Saturday, workers found Perez unconscious and dying in the field. OHSA Oregon has classified her death as heat related.
“Heat death – heat illness – is completely preventable,” Strater said.
Farm worker advocates like Strater and Lopez are outraged and call for greater protection for farm workers.
They say they have asked the state to adopt a mandatory emergency rule and standards before the heatwave to protect people working outdoors in extreme heat.
“This has to be treated as the emergency that it is. It’s a crisis,” Strater said.
“Some of the things that we would like to see included in the emergency rules and standards are pretty basic, frankly. What we want to see is access to cold, clean water on construction sites for workers on the job site. outdoors, provided by the employer, ”Lopez said. “We would also like to see shade access which will be sufficient to protect all agricultural workers on duty and at the site close to the fields.”
Lopez said they also want more frequent paid breaks when temperatures are above 90 degrees, mandatory paid training and retaliation protections.
Oregon OSHA is investigating whether there have been any workplace violations with Ernst and the contractor who hired Perez and other workers, which could take up to four months.
Under its general rules for all workplaces, the agency can cite employers for not protecting workers during extreme weather conditions. But the details of how to protect them are left to the employer’s discretion.
“There must be binding binding requirements that if the employer fails to provide the basic necessities of life for these people, there will be an element to hold them accountable when these disasters occur,” Strater said.
When Oregon Governor Kate Brown ordered state offices to mitigate climate change last March, the Oregon OSHA worked with the Oregon Health Authority to develop specific rules and standards for prevent heat-related illnesses.
But the pandemic has delayed the effort and a formal rule proposal is not expected until September.
“If we had some of these things in place, it could be that Senor Sebastian Francisco Perez would be with us here today,” Lopez said.
KGW contacted Ernst with questions about the working conditions and had no response on Friday afternoon.
The PCUN is organizing a vigil for Perez in front of the crèche on Saturday July 3.