COACHELLA, CA — Every morning for a decade, farm worker Ramona Felix arose before dawn, starting her shift before sunrise to get as much of her work done as possible before the sweltering 110 degree weather set in.
Over time she was able to maximize her efficiency, working as quickly as possible to minimize the agony.
“There were days when the heat was unbearable,” said Felix, who suffers from asthma caused by years of pesticide exposure in the fields. “I remember not being able to breathe.”
From May to September, temperatures in the Coachella Valley average between 113 and 118 degrees. Last month, temperatures peaked at 122 degrees—just one degree shy of the area’s all time record—and it may get even hotter. Next week, massive heat waves are expected across the nation.
Heat is the number one weather-related killer in the U.S., claiming between 600 and 1,500 lives each summer. The danger is particularly acute in California’s agricultural inland regions like the Coachella Valley and Central Valley, where climate change and drought are producing heat waves that are increasingly severe.
There can be little argument that farm workers are among the most at-risk.
“There is absolutely an association between climate change and the health of agricultural workers,” said Dr. Marc Schenker, director at the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at UC Davis. “The health effects of climate change on workers are diverse, and range from heat stress to infectious diseases, and possibly kidney disease.”
With a 300-day growing season and close to 70,000 active and profitable acres to farm in the Coachella Valley alone, days off are rare.
“There aren’t many days we stop because of the heat,” said Efrain Castro, a foreman for a local growing company and field supervisor. “But when we do, I let my supervisor know that that’s all the guys can do that day,” he said in Spanish.
Castro said that he does worry about the workers’ health on extremely hot days, and periodically has to remind his all-male crew to stop for breaks when the heat gets too intense.
Despite the risks associated with farm work in the summertime, crop workers do not get paid more than they do in non-summer months and don’t get extra pay for working on summer holidays like the Fourth of July, according to the farm workers Fusion interviewed for this article.
The risks are even greater for women workers who are expecting.
“I have encountered numerous women who work in the fields until the very last days of their pregnancies, even in the most extreme three-digit heat,” said Megan Beaman, a civil rights attorney in the Coachella Valley. “These same women, incredibly, return to work in the same heat often within two to three weeks [after] delivery. We really need stronger laws to protect workers from heat at all times and to provide them adequate rest and health protections during and after pregnancy.”
Beaman recently ran into a farmworker on a 120 degree July day, who was nine months pregnant, having just finished her workday in the fields. Reliant on her earnings, she had no other option but to continue working.
Extended exposure to extreme temperatures can lead to a myriad of health problems, the most obvious being heat exhaustion, which includes dizziness, headaches, fainting and heat stroke, according to The United States National Library of Medicine.
In recent years, a number of amendments have been made to laws governing farm labor—such as the mandatory provision of water and shade at worksites—and in 2005 California passed the Heat Illness Prevention Act. The effectiveness of that law has been disputed, however, and farm worker advocates have continued to push for greater protections and enforcement of existing law.
Today, Felix no longer works in the fields. She said she was tired of ending her day drenched in sweat. But most of all, she was tired of seeing her fellow workers experience daily injustices and abuse. She is now an organizer with Lideres Campesinas, a local group that advocates on behalf of farm worker women.
Maricruz Ramirez is another former farm worker who organizes with Felix at Lideres Campesinas. When she came to the U.S. from Guatemala, working in the fields was one of the only jobs Ramirez could get. Although she struggled in the fields, she depended on the job and could not afford to leave for six months.
“The [farm] overseers that actually enforce the laws and observe our rights are great—it's the ones that don't that we have to worry about,” Ramirez said. “A lot of people just grit their teeth and bear it. I have seen people get very, very sick working summers in the valley. We still have a lot of work to do.”
To get involved with improving conditions for farm workers, visit www.farmworkerjustice.org.
This content was made possible by a grant from The California Endowment and produced independently by Fusion’s Rise Up: Be Heard Journalism Fellowship.
Esperanza Mendez is a blogger and community advocate in Coachella, CA.