Group Prioritizes Resources, Safety for Farmworkers Affected By Wildfires
United Farm Workers of America is connecting farmworkers who have lost their homes and jobs with resources that can help them. The union is also working to protect its members, who are continuing to harvest in smoky conditions.
Wildfires have been burning across Northern California since October 8, killing at least 41 people and destroying 6,500-plus homes and businesses. The fires have also affected the region’s $1 billion agricultural industry, as well as the thousands of immigrant farmworkers who harvest grapes for local wineries and vineyards.
“We got the first reports at 10 or 11 at night when they saw the bright orange glow coming from the hills,” said Armando Elenes, 3rd vice president the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). “Right away, the first problem is that workers lost work; they had to stop working—and some of them lost a lot more. Some of them lost their homes, or others were evacuated and had to leave town and had to go somewhere else—staying with relatives or staying in shelters.”
To help farmworkers affected by the wildfires, Elenes said UFW is working to connect them to various resources. “We’re informing the workers of their rights, in terms of the services available to them,” he said. “We’ve been letting them know the services that they can go to, in terms of clothing, housing, and food.”
Elenes said that since community organizations and the Red Cross have done an incredible job at drumming up resources for the affected farmworkers, his job “is more about reaching and informing them, so that they understand that those resources are available to them.”
To do that, UFW is relying heavily on social media and text messaging. “There are a lot of cheaper cellphone options that are available, and a lot of farm workers use social media to communicate with their families back home, so we’ve been doing a lot of work on social media,” he said. The group is also directly calling farmworker leaders to check in with them to see that they’re doing OK.
In addition, UFW is coordinating with the Division of Occupational Safety and Health in California—or Cal/OSHA—to ensure that its members have the proper equipment to work safely. “We noticed that some workers were working outside [during the wildfires], and they had no protection, in terms of no protective equipment, no face masks, or anything of that nature,” Elenes said. UFW is currently coordinating with Cal/OSHA to ensure farmworkers have the protective equipment they need to be safe in the poor air quality.
“We’re just trying to figure [out how] the farmworker population gets the help they need,” Elenes said.
An aerial view of the wildfires in Sonoma County, California, last week. (California National Guard)