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Farm Workers Already Challenged By COVID Labor Through Heat And Wildfire Smoke

WATSONVILLE (KPIX 5) -- The recent heat wave and wildfire smoke have made for especially tough times for farm workers who were already struggling with COVID-19.

Farm workers continue to stay out in the fields, but now some of them are starting to speak out about the difficult and dangerous conditions they've been working through.

"It's very hot. There's a lot of dust. We have a hard time breathing. We get headaches and sore throats," said Antonia, a single mother of four who picked strawberries in the Watsonville area in 100 degree heat last week. "We have to keep working. If we don't work, how are we going to live?"

Antonia says her employers only give workers drinking water. They do not provide any of the workers with masks, gloves or other protective equipment, which is a violation of California law, according to Cal/OSHA officials.

"We have a new regulation. It came into effect last year. Employers need to protect their workers from wildfire smoke," said David Hornung with Cal/OSHA's Heat and Agriculture Program.

The new regulations are based on the air quality index, which was above 150 in several places where harvesting is taking place.

"If the air quality index is above 150, then the employer needs to provide N-95 masks," Hornung said.

Antonia says she and her co-workers pay for their own simple face coverings and other safety equipment out of their own wages. And she says wages are down because it's piece work and much of the fruit is damaged by the smoke and doesn't get counted.

On Monday, an advocate filed an official complaint on Antonia's behalf
with Cal/OSHA's Enforcement Department against her employers including Norcal Harvesting of Salinas.

Cal/OSHA says it's currently investigating several complaints from agricultural workers around the state. Fines for repeated violations could range from $5,000. to $50,000.

KPIX contacted Norcal through an email portal on its website but did not
get a response.

Antonia said she's speaking out to bring a little more attention to the farm workers. She said she only wants for the companies to give
the workers, who provide food for so many, a little more consideration.

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