When smoke filled the Central Valley sky in late summer and early fall this year, farmworkers were still harvesting in the fields. California requires agricultural employers to supply masks to outdoor workers when the air quality is poor enough. But this year, that was a tough rule to follow.
The pandemic increased demand on medical-grade face masks, or N95s, and administrative delays at government agencies created a backlog on supply for farmworkers.
So the people who pick crops for the world market had to make do with homemade face coverings, said Hernan Hernandez, executive director of the California Farmworker Foundation.
“The shortage was so bad that these employees couldn't even get [personal protective equipment] themselves if they tried through the private sector,” he said. “When the wildfires occurred, everybody was in need of N95s.”
A handful of California lawmakers want to avoid future mask shortages while wildfires are raging. Hollister-based Democratic Assemblymember Robert Rivas recently proposed legislation to create a stockpile of N95 masks to help protect farmworkers from smoky conditions. The measure also calls for government “strike teams” to help farmers deliver the face coverings to workers.
“We want to ensure that agriculture has the resources, especially when we're asking them to have the ability to provide their workers with the appropriate face coverings in the event of a wildfire,” he said.
Rivas says his bill would build on regulations that require employers to disseminate N95 masks when the air quality index for particulate matter is in the “unhealthy” range, or 151 or higher. The regulation states that N95s are the minimum level of protection needed, and that surgical masks or makeshift face coverings — such as bandannas and scarves — don’t safeguard against wildfire smoke.
The new proposal, introduced last week, is not just important to the workers and their families, but is “very important to food security for our state and country,” said Rivas. “Agriculture is a $50 billion industry and so it's very important to our state economy,” he added.
Agricultural industries like winegrape growers support the idea. Although finding masks wasn’t an issue for their workers this year, a spokesperson for the California Association of Winegrape Growers says masks have become a necessity as wildfire seasons worsen.
“The fires happen the most during the harvest season for wine grapes,” said association spokesperson Michael Miiller. “The smoke travels a long way. We had smoke in vineyards in Lodi and Clarksburg where there was no fire within 100 miles.”
The strawberry industry, mostly along California’s coast, didn’t experience a mask shortage this year, because it already had a stockpile of masks of its own, says Carolyn O'Donnell, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission.
“The commission was able to get those out right away in case there were growers who didn't have them on hand,” she said. “We had enough to bridge the gap until the state got the money [and masks] distributed out to the agricultural commissioners in each county.”
O’Donnell supports the state’s effort to secure masks in the future, but she wonders if the government “strike teams” to distribute masks are needed. She says there are already so many rules and teams that inspect farms, and officials should also focus on other conditions that affect the health of agricultural workers, such as heat-related illness.
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