Farmwork is hard work. It doesn't stop, even in extreme heat. Many farmworkers across North America are dealing with unbearable temperatures this summer.
In the US, many of the people who work in the fields, growing and harvesting fruits and vegetables, are immigrants. Only a handful of states have any labor standards specifically to deal with extreme heat, and workers are often reluctant to advocate for their rights, for fear of jeopardizing their jobs or getting deported.
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According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, last month was the hottest June on record for the contiguous United States, smashing the record set in 2016 by nearly a degree.
Washington became the second state after Oregon to announce emergency rules earlier this month, providing farmworkers and others who work outdoors more protection from hot weather in the wake of the extreme heat wave that claimed the lives of hundreds of people.
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Roxana Chicas, a nurse and assistant professor at Emory University School of Nursing in Georgia, has seen firsthand the recent impacts of the heat in the fields and on farmworkers, and says that more needs to be done. She discussed the difficult working conditions and their effects with The World's host Marco Werman.
Marco Werman: Roxana, you're now in Florida speaking with farmworkers. What are you learning?
Roxana Chicas: We're doing a research study and many of them are telling us how hot it is outside. Sometimes when they come into our office, you can feel their body is just so hot and it's very humid down here in Florida, as well.
One detail jumped out at me. Even when temperatures are moderately high, farmworkers are essentially running a constant body temperature of over 100 degrees — a fever. So, what other physical impacts does this kind of heat imply for farmworkers?
So, farmworkers are 35 times more likely to die from a heat-related death, compared to other occupations, and we have documented that they sometimes work with a fever. Their core body temperature goes over the 100.4 Fahrenheit threshold. And so, many of them are chronically dehydrated. They suffer from heat-related illness symptoms. Some of them are even suffering from acute kidney injury.
As a nurse, Roxana, what led you to start looking at the immigrant farmworking community and their working conditions?
Well, I'm an immigrant myself. My parents worked in the agricultural fields in El Salvador, and so, I was also formerly undocumented. So, I understand the vulnerabilities that come with not having legal status. And so, in addition to the record-breaking temperatures that farmworkers are exposed to, it's just the collision of both climate change and lack of immigration status coming together, and it's a deteriorating farmworker health, and also, not really protecting them and protecting their human dignity.
I'm wondering what you've seen in your work as a nurse. Have you attended to patients who work in the fields?
Yes. So, this morning I just actually wrapped up the morning session where we're seeing workers before they go to work, getting blood and urine to see, from just one work shift, how their physiological blood and urine changes. Again, many of them come to our morning session really dehydrated, and even further dehydrated at the end of the day. And some will also suffer from acute kidney injury just over one workday.
Just to be clear, a lot of these farmworkers don't really have a choice but to be working in the fields, correct?
Yes, that's right, because many of the workers who we see are undocumented. And so, this is their bread and butter. And they don't want to rock the boat, they don't want to say that their working conditions are harsh to their employer, because they fear retaliation that other growers will not hire them. And so, they keep quiet and they continue to be exploited and work in really bad conditions.
Finally, Roxana, I'm wondering, when you go to the grocery store and you want to buy vegetables or fruit, how do you think about your purchases in relation to those farmworkers? I mean, people still need to eat and those farmworkers still need a wage, right?
That's a great point that you bring [up], because I think that everyone in the United States, but around the world, we all benefit from undocumented labor. And every time I do go to the grocery store and I see these beautiful fruits and vegetables, I think about the awful rhetoric there's been around immigrants. And I think everyone benefits from undocumented labor. They're here to work and they provide food for our tables, and yet they have very little for themselves.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.