Written by: Kathy Keesee Program Coordinator
NOWIA Únete, Center for Farm Worker Advocacy, which began in 1996, has been serving the Latino-a-x immigrant and farm worker community for over 25 years. During our time of service to the community we have seen few wins or significant changes for agricultural workers in their living and working conditions.
Farm workers continue to be employed in one of the most dangerous jobs in the US. Average life expectancy is 49 years, just over half of that of a white male. Exposure to chemicals in the workplace and extreme temperatures in the fields put the worker’s health at risk. Last year, with the death of farm worker Sebastian Perez in the Willamette Valley who succumbed to heat stroke while moving irrigation pipes, OR OSHA implemented temporary heat/smoke regulations that require employers to provide shade for workers as well as additional breaks and cool water to drink. It also requires them to provide respirators at high AQI levels. There was push back from growers over the new rules stating that it would be too cumbersome to provide these necessities, but thanks to a coalition of organizations including legal service providers, advocates and scientists, the heat/smoke rules were made permanent in June of this year.
As we continue to see temperature extremes in Jackson county, I don’t think there is any doubt that climate change has negatively impacted agriculture in the Rogue Valley. Last year Ag employer Bear Creek Orchards, who normally harvest between 10-15 thousand tons of pears only harvested 5,000 due to a lack of irrigation water during the drought. Not only did this have an economic impact on production, but with the lack of available agricultural work for domestic workers, many were pushed into the illegal cannabis industry or were forced to continue working in extreme weather, hot and cold, to make ends meet.
For over 80 years, farm workers, some of the lowest paid workers in the US, have been excluded from overtime pay. The 1938 law based on racist efforts to exclude blacks from overtime laws was finally struck down, again, through the efforts of a coalition of workers’ rights groups, legislators, and legal services providers. We won overtime for farm workers!!! Although the law will be in place starting January 2023, implementation will be tiered, and it will not be fully in effect until 2027.
Únete provides a variety of support services for our Latino-a-x immigrant and farm worker communities. We offer English, Citizenship, Basic computer skills and driving in Oregon classes. We offer advocacy services for wage theft, injured workers, application assistance with Oregon Health Plan, Oregon Health Insurance Marketplace, Oregon Worker Relief program, weekly COVID vaccine clinics and WRAP support services for families with positive COVID. We have a program that supports Spanish speaking families with children with special needs. Since the fires our programs have grown exponentially and we are grateful for the generous support we have received from the community, foundations and the state.
As we continue to see the negative effects of climate change on our local farm workers, remember to honor their work in putting food on our tables. If it were not for those toiling in the fields, we would not enjoy the fresh fruits and vegetables as we do today. We are grateful for donations of food staples to help us feed needy immigrant and farm worker families. For more information about Únete’s programs to support local farm workers or to make a donation to support our mission check out our website at UneteOregon.org.