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As extreme heat threatens workers’ health, California legislators, activists push for nationwide protections

 Technicians from SunPower Corp., brave the extreme heat as they install solar panels on a residence's roof in Pasadena, Calif., Wednesday, July 19, 2023.
Damian Dovarganes
AP Photo
Technicians from SunPower Corp., brave the extreme heat as they install solar panels on a residence's roof in Pasadena, Calif., Wednesday, July 19, 2023.

During heatwaves, farmworkers are faced with a difficult choice: Keep working in the heat and risk their health, or stop working, which often means a pay cut they can’t afford.

This is the issue laborers in California — and in other states — have dealt with amid weeks of high temperatures. In Sacramento, over-100 degree temperatures broke July records, a phenomenon experienced in other parts of California as well.

Samuel Sandoval, an expert on water resources with UC Davis, frequently provides assistance to farmworkers, including during recent high temperature-days. He said the pressure to keep working leaves outdoor laborers at a higher risk for heat stroke and other illnesses.

“They may want to force themselves to work to get some extra dollars but at the same time, [they’re] putting their life at risk,” he said.

In response to the recent heat across the country, Congressional Legislators introduced a bill requiring protections for laborers during extreme heat. The bill, dubbed the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, is named after a California farmworker who died in 2004 due to a heatstroke. The heatstroke occurred after Valdivia worked for 10 hours straight in over 100-degree temperatures. Since then, advocates have said his story is an example of a preventable death, had more protections been in place.

If adopted, the bill would require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, to establish measures protecting outdoor and indoor laborers during extreme heat. Protections described in the legislation include access to water and paid breaks in cool spaces.

California Senator Alex Padilla is one of the legislators who introduced the bill.

“The problems of extreme heat are only getting worse as climate change is getting worse,” he said. “And so the protections that are overdue are urgently needed across the country.”

While farmworkers are often the first image that comes to mind with this issue, Padilla said heat issues impact other sectors as well.

“It's not just the workers in the fields,” he said. “It's workers in delivery, workers in warehouses and manufacturing plants and workers on construction sites.”

Padilla said California already has heat-related protections for laborers. In California, employers are required to offer breaks in shaded areas once temperatures exceed 80 degrees.

But Sandoval said this doesn’t fix the issue for many laborers. Imagine, he said, working in extreme heat for hours on end. Often, a break just doesn’t cut it.

“When [temperatures] are above 95, above 100, it’s just almost impossible,” Sandoval said.

He added that many laborers are forced to work fewer hours if extreme weather, like intense heat or smoky skies, prevent them from doing so altogether. They often don’t have the luxury of a back up plan.

“We have insurance, crop insurance, to pay a farmer,” he said. “We don't have health risk insurance to pay a farm worker.”

Sandoval said one solution involves offering financial aid to farmworkers when extreme heat makes it impossible to do their work safely. He said many employers often argue against this suggestion and say it’s “economically impossible.”

But Sandoval said in the country’s past, similar arguments were made against child labor laws and requirements for overtime pay. Despite the concerns, the country has still successfully progressed in those directions — so why not here, he asked.

“We should take care of our families, of all the Californians, the ones that are more at risk [because] of their health and of their low income,” he said.

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