Workers Should Be Able to Evacuate.
by Karin Umfrey
Wake up in the morning, step outside for that morning walk, and you realize — the sky looks hazy. Due to pollution, this seems a more common reality. But when it’s wildfire season, the air quality is so much worse.
In California, there are groups of folks particularly vulnerable to this exposure: unsheltered residents and outdoor workers. Outdoor workers are especially vulnerable due to the type of work they do and chronic exposure to unhealthy air quality. With chronic exposure, workers may develop more vulnerability such as asthma that can then make them more susceptible to heart and lung conditions at lower air quality levels than before.
Worksafe supports three related bills that would support farmworkers in wildfire zones: AB 2847, AB 2538 and SB 1044. This work comes out of our years of advocacy for worker protections from wildfire smoke and advocacy with our powerful coalition partners North Bay Jobs with Justice, Lideres Campesinas, MICOP, CAUSE, and CRLAF at both the state and local levels.
AB 2847 creates unemployment benefits for workers who are excluded currently from unemployment due to their immigration status — called the “Excluded Workers Pilot Program.” Also, the bill requires the Labor Workforce Development Agency to make recommendations for establishing a permanent program. The purpose of this program is to provide relief to immigrant communities who were impacted hard by the COVID-19 pandemic when job losses occurred due to businesses closing. Californians excluded from unemployment benefits exhausted their savings and incurred debts to pay for the costs of housing, childcare, food, and other basic needs.
AB 2538 would create a wildfire notification system. Surprisingly California lacks a notification system on wildfires or any uniform published information on when a zone becomes a mandatory evacuation zone. For example, there was a wildfire that just broke out in Orange County — and workers in wildfire zones did not get a uniform message. News coverage, radio, and more can inform people, but if they only have their phones on them while working, they may not get the information. With an alert system, the phone should notify them of the danger in the area.
However, the bill should be stronger to address language access justice. Because most farmworkers do speak indigenous languages as their primary or only language, there should be amendments to the bill to include this and a plan of action so it is implemented. For example, MICOP (Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project/Proyecto Mixteco Indigena) is working with Ventura County on an indigenous language smoke alert system using audio messages.
Finally, SB 1044 is limited to apply in states of emergency that pose imminent and ongoing risk of harm to a workplace. After notifying the employer of the emergency condition leading to their inability to report, workers would be protected from an employer threatening adverse action or taking adverse action.
It would also require employers to allow workers to have access to their phones and would allow workers to leave the premises if they must do so for their safety. For example, with that alert system bill we just discussed, how would the workers know unless they had their phones?
When the Getty Fire raged through Los Angeles, it was domestic workers and landscapers who continued to enter evacuation zones to work. During North Bay fires, the counties granted passes to agricultural employers to send workers into smoke-laden fire zones to protect the crops, even while homeowners were advised to flee.
These state proposals are coming forward as Sonoma County is in the midst of deciding whether or not they should implement an Ag Pass Program rather than continuing with no oversight over employers during wildfires. Because agricultural workers in Sonoma County have faced significant health and safety issues, they have been ready and mobilizing to protect their lives.
Some of the protocols that should be implemented are “Disaster Paid Not Worked” so that an employee can choose not to work in a mandatory evacuation zone. When people are not paid, they tend not to take leave. It’s extremely difficult in California, especially if you are a low wage worker, to miss any work and still pay your bills on time. Justice requires a language access protocol so that the employees can receive evacuation and safety training in their primary or native language. There are many community-based organizations that are ready and available to assist with this in Sonoma. North Bay Jobs With Justice and others advocate for hazard pay for work in mandatory evacuation zones.
Sonoma County is in a moment where they can do something — advance a program to protect workers and create accountability for employers that want people to work in mandatory evacuation zones. While statewide rules would be great, the reality is that it takes time for the legislature to pass bills that address the problems all of California constituents and workers are facing. In the meantime, local governments have the authority and power to step in and protect the workers who are in their counties until that moment can happen.