Worsening climate events push New York farmworkers to seek resilience
On a June summer morning, phones were pointed up at the hazy, rust colored sky overlooking the Long Island Sound. The air had a sci-fi movie glaze as a result of Canadian wildfires hundreds of miles away. Throughout the day, residents reported having difficulty breathing, and by the next morning, the air quality index showed just going outside for the day was the equivalent of smoking almost half of a pack of cigarettes.
But for some communities, the abrupt weather disaster did little to shake their daily routine. Farmworkers throughout Long Island’s North Fork had to continue their work on the land, some unaware of the full extent of health consequences that came with heavy, strenuous activity outdoors.
Margaret Palmquist, an organizer with a local chapter of Trabajadores Agrícolas Unidos, said that her farmworking community was unequipped to protect themselves from the smoke. “I think it caught a lot of people off guard… It was an unexpected crisis to deal with that people haven't really been used to confronting yet,” she said. “I know on a lot of the farms, they didn't say anything to the workers, which doesn't come as that much of a surprise.”
That day, some farmworkers were left with little information concerning what could happen to them if they went outside to perform heavy labor for extended periods of time. Many weren’t told they should be wearing masks to keep the smoke out of their lungs, and they weren’t informed that they were at significantly higher risk for having asthma attacks and developing adult-onset asthma as a result of their labors for the day.
Vilma, who didn’t share her last name to protect her safety, is originally from Guatemala and works in Riverhead. She was one of the farmworkers working under that day’s orange sky. “I didn’t feel much when it first started,” she recalled. “But there were a lot of people on my farm who said that they felt they couldn’t breathe and were so dizzy they thought they were going to pass out.”
“Our boss gave us masks, but not everybody used them,” she added.
While this summer’s dangerous air quality rolled in over the Long Island Sound with sudden force, other impacts of climate change on this workforce aren’t quite as obvious. Increasingly intense heat and humidity can fly under the radar. Not all employers recognize the need for updated safety regulations from year to year, even though practices that might have been safe and healthy years earlier now pose an increasing risk.
“Our bosses tell us that it’s too hot and we have to go rest,” said Vilma, who has been a farmworker at a large nursery farm for 10 years. “In the summertime, if it’s very hot, they give us some water or ice cream or they tell us we can’t work and we have to go.
“The same if there’s an lightning storm or if it rains too much, you can’t work.”
Earlier this year, reports showed that Long Island is ranked fourth in the nation among major population centers for exposure to risks that climate change presents – both physical and economic. Long Island is at comparatively high risk of facing not only emergency climate events, but also rising temperatures.
"What can a person do in this situation?” said Palmquist. “A person who is working 60 hours a week in greenhouses feels like a sauna, because when it is 90 degrees outside, under that plastic, it is like 110 degrees, and they have no breaks. What can a person do against that?”
“I imagine that in those cases, those workers, yes, they are concerned about the earth, about the world, but also about themselves, about their health,” she added.
In the face of both long-term climate challenges and disasters, farmworkers on the North Fork shared in a community conversation with WSHU that their biggest problem is a lack of preparedness. Participants emphasized that many people within their community not only lack direction in knowing what to do during short-term climate disasters, but also aren’t aware of the resources available to maintain and improve their health in the long-term.
Palmquist, with vineyard workers union RWDSU Local 338, took part in the community conversation.
“We’re a part of nature,” she said. “And that’s not saying we should go with the flow and take whatever our job gives us and do nothing about it. But [rather], not only does nature deserve more respect, we deserve more respect.”
But preparedness, especially for communities like seasonal and migrant farmworker communities, can be a complicated task.
Preparedness as resilience
Often, resilience is seen as a reactionary measure – to avoid paying to replace greenhouse windows again after another storm, farms could board them up to be stronger than before. But at WSHU’s community conversation, residents expressed a desire for a resilience that can be established before any novel climate emergency hits. They equated preparedness itself as a form of resilience.
An emergency preparedness plan can give a community proactive steps to mitigate the worst possible damage while also allowing them to bounce back quickly.
Elizabeth Hornstein does sustainability and resilience planning with the New York Sea Grant, and is co-author of the Long Island Sound Study that drives state and federal funding to the region's coastal projects. She stressed the positive effects of preparedness on both body and nature.
“A lot of our emphasis is on finding and helping communities to identify, in advance, solutions that are going to be beneficial for both the environment and people,” Hornstein said. “Because there are so many overlaps.”
Vilma, union organizer Yadira Vasquez, and Gladys Carrillo at the National Center for Farmworker Health have all worked in agriculture, either in the past or currently. In conversation about preparedness against climate events, all three narrated their worries about unsustainable work practices that keep workers, and their families, from staying resilient.
Vilma shared that she wishes the other workers around her felt able to rest when working conditions are poor, because a lot of what she sees is unhealthy in the long term. “We don’t realize that if we work like that, we might have problems in the future,” she said. “Like working in the rain a lot. Then, you get a lot of colds, and that can damage your lungs. And then what do you do?”
Vasquez, who organizes with UFCW Local 888, shared similar sentiments.
“Should I stop working? No, we have to work because we have orders to fill, we have a lot of work to do. So [workers] didn't stop working,” she said. “They don’t see how this will affect them, not right now, but in the future. With your health, you can’t play. So if you don't have any health, how will you provide for your family?”
Carrillo directs program services at the National Center for Farmworker Health in Texas. Before that, she lived as a farmworker with her family in Illinois. She echoed the ties between the health of workers and the resilience within their families, and explained how workers shouldn’t have to choose between the jobs that support their families and their health.
“A lot of these communities really prioritize family,” she said. “Being healthy allows them to spend more time together, to be able to live longer. And to be able to have memories that are priceless, when it comes down to it.”
The job of keeping farmworkers safe
Resources and guides outlining safety measures to take in the event of a climate emergency exist on the websites of government officials, health advocates, and migrant aid organizations – plentiful in English, and only sometimes with an additional Spanish translation (a list is provided below). But even where a translation exists, this doesn’t mean that the information is inherently accessible, especially if people aren’t sure where to start, or who to trust.
Carrillo said the burden shouldn’t be on the farmworker to find the information for how to keep safe on the job. Rather, it’s the responsibility of their employer under federal law in many cases to not only ensure that workers know what precautions to take in a given weather situation, but also to provide proper equipment to the worker to keep safe throughout the job.
“Employers are pivotal in terms of having a healthy workforce,” she said.
Vasquez cautioned that the likelihood of that happening at her work was low. “Owners want the workers to do their jobs. They are obviously not going to tell them that [the weather] is bad for their health,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about profit. Even if there are employers who do want to do what is right for their workers, they also have to worry about the money they are making.”
She further explained that not only do employers refrain from providing guidance to employees, some might purposefully keep workers in the dark as to what the potential negative health effects of climate events could look like. Without the assistance of employers, farmworkers on Long Island must rely on other sources of support.
This responsibility of emergency guidance has been taken on by nonprofit organizations, like Rural & Migrant Ministry; grassroots groups, such as the North Fork Unity Action Committee; nonprofit educators, like Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County; and houses of worship — including the North Fork Spanish Apostolate in Riverhead, which was run by the late Sr. Margaret Rose Smyth.
“I think we are, of course, newer here on Long Island to seeing the [effects of] wildfires and knowing what to do,” said Jennifer Brown, board president of Rural & Migrant Ministry. “There’s the problem of education and having the employers tell workers that this is unsafe. We can see how this is new. We’ve got to figure this out.”
“It's going to be an ongoing struggle if the main focus of those of us who care about the environment … if our main focus is still the economic profit structure,” she added.
Labor unions are the latest to step into this role assisting farmworkers combat climate change. In 2020, a law went into effect in New York legalizing the right for farmworkers to collectively negotiate for equitable housing and working conditions. New York is one of only 14 states to allow this type of union to form at all.
Since then, organizing has been slow. A group of farmworkers on the North Fork’s Pindar Vineyards became the first in New York to form a union, but delays from management and worker protests allowed the rest of the state to catch up on reaching contracts. Elsewhere, farm owners also pushed back on the law allowing their workers the right to a day of rest, and to overtime pay because of the impact on their productivity and bottom line.
Only now are the state’s first farmworkers' unions obtaining approved contracts on the North Fork, said Palmquist with RWDSU/Local 338. On Long Island, Pindar and Palmer vineyards have contracts approved.
Mary Anne Trasciatti is a labor expert at Hofstra University. Much of her work covers union organizing. She said labor unions can be strong advocates for ensuring farmworker safety in the face of climate change.
But being a part of a union can feel risky, even if it’s legal. This is especially true for undocumented workers.
“[It’s] a lot more complicated and a lot harder,” said Trasciatti. She explained that the process of establishing unions already can provoke retaliation from employers. “So all of that is made even more intense when the workers who are considering or actually engaging in organizing are undocumented because they're just way more vulnerable,” she added.
Trasciatti said undocumented workers’ concern about legal penalty can be so strong that they even decline services offered by unions and other organizations that are meant to help them combat climate emergencies. She remembered conversations she had in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
“There are a number of undocumented people that I spoke with who said, ‘Yeah, I knew that there was money there, and there was food there, and there was shelter there, but because I don't have a social security number, I was afraid that I was going to be asked – and that I was going to be exposed.’” she said. “So a lot of times, even when there might be services available for undocumented workers, they're still fearful.”
Working side-by-side to stay healthy
But lack of documentation doesn’t mean a farmworker is left with nowhere to turn in regards to staying in the loop with climate emergency resources. In fact, Christine Gilbert, who researches crisis communication involving climate change at Stony Brook University, said people trust the information they hear through those close to them more than through anyone else.
“What is oftentimes most important, especially when you're thinking about a community that is disadvantaged in some way – whether that's not being a citizen of the U.S. or not speaking English – is that there is a lot to be said for word-of-mouth.”
Gilbert’s advice is to use that word-of-mouth to focus within farmworker communities on the risks associated with any climate-related event, even ones that haven't happened before.
“Rather than planning for an identifiable or a known crisis in the future,” she said, “lay out guidelines so that whether it's a hurricane, wildfire, or some type of heat advisory, [there are] steps to go through to help increase the likelihood that people are not only safe, but they have some type of efficacy in responding to these.”
She said that planning for crises more broadly – knowing how many people you can reach at a given moment, or knowing how many people around you have transportation for abrupt emergencies – can actually help alarm bells go off when the time comes.
“If people don't feel like they can address an issue, they're less likely to respond to a crisis," she said. "They need to have some type of tools or techniques to respond. Whether that's calling six people who also work on the farm, or posting something on social media, they're doing something about it.”
Carrillo at the National Center for Farmworker Health said there are still many resources, both local to Long Island and on the national scale, that cater specifically to seasonal and migrant workers without documentation. But she emphasized that the first step to gaining access to help is acknowledging that health is a priority.
“The agricultural worker can be empowered enough to take an active role in their own health. [But] A lot of them, unfortunately, aren't aware that these services exist,” Carrillo said.
An abundance of resources, regardless of status
Many emergency preparedness resources exist for farmworkers on Long Island, available both locally as well as at the national level. Regardless of a farmworker’s status, their command of English, nor an employer’s noncompliance to ensure worker safety, advocates say there are spaces that prioritize health and wellbeing in the face of a changing climate.
Mary Anne Trasciatti at Hofstra University described resilience within the community as “a kind of flexible strength. It is a bend, don’t break strength,” She stressed that resilience can come from all sides, but especially in those working, and laboring beside one another. “And the strength of the labor movement historically, now and forever, is solidarity.”