Climate Change Necessitates Stronger Safety Net for Farmworkers

Lorena Cassady, Flickr

On this day of remembrance for César Chávez—an advocate, alongside Dolores Huerta, for farmworker rights, social justice, and human dignity—Resources Legacy Fund would like to call attention to the critical role of farmworkers and the obligation to provide them a stronger safety net, especially in the face of worsening climate disaster.

California agriculture is a $50 billion industry, which relies heavily upon the 160,000+ farmworkers who plant, tend, and harvest crops. The majority of farmworkers in California are undocumented and lack access to health insurance, unemployment benefits, and many other state and federal safety net programs. As the catastrophic impacts of climate change increasingly ravage vulnerable, frontline communities, we—as nonprofit organizations, philanthropy, and government—need to act now to better protect those who literally put the food on our tables.

Today’s Acute Problems

On March 10, severe flooding from California’s epic season of storms caused a levee failure in the small town of Pajaro in Monterey County, California. As a result, most of the town’s 3,000 residents—largely Spanish-speaking, low-income farmworkers—were displaced from their homes for more than two weeks. This avoidable tragedy underscores the profound inequities faced by so many economically marginalized communities and is summed up by an official who told The Los Angeles Times “that an improvement project didn’t pencil out, in part, because ‘it’s a low-income area. It’s largely farmworkers that live’ there.”

Even where they have not displaced families directly, as in Pajaro, California’s ceaseless series of atmospheric rivers have caused thousands of farmworkers to lose pay for weeks due to flooded fields, orchards, and transportation routes. Flooding will also likely impact the upcoming growing season as fields are fallowed for flooding and contamination concerns.

Whether it’s too much rain or not enough, the impacts of climate change are affecting farmworkers with dramatic consequence. For the past several years, drought and extreme heat have been disrupting their health and earnings.

These losses come on top of years of record-breaking fire seasons that have forced thousands of farmworkers and other outdoor laborers to choose between earning a paycheck or protecting their lives and lungs from toxic smoke and flames. During the devastating lightning-sparked wildfires of August 2020, a UC Irvine analysis found that more than 650 farmworkers were working within a mile of fire perimeters in Sonoma County, almost half within the actual fire’s borders.

According to a 2022 policy paper led by RLF grantees Central Coast United for a Sustainable Economy, Worksafe, and others, “Agricultural work is more likely than other outdoor work sectors like construction to continue during wildfire emergencies in order to prevent potential crop loss. Farmworkers are among the most vulnerable workforces in the state due to immigration status, overall economic insecurity and dependence on seasonal income, low rates of healthcare access, and preexisting health disparities such as respiratory issues from dust and pesticide exposure.” Furthermore, a UC Davis report found that the hazards of outdoor work during wildfires extend beyond the smoke and flames, lingering in the toxic ash in the soil. 

Covid-19 also caused widespread financial loss due to disruptions to food supply chains. Farmworkers faced additional layers of challenge, including lack of health care and sick leave, limited access to sanitation and personal protective equipment (PPE), and difficulty accessing government assistance.

As the latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns us, without aggressive action on climate, disasters will become so extreme that people will not be able to adapt; heat waves, famines, and infectious diseases could claim millions of additional lives by century’s end.

In addition to radical mitigation of greenhouse gases causing climate change, we need radical adaptation and resilience measures to protect those on the front lines from harm.

Nimble Solutions

In February 2023, shortly before the Pajaro disaster, Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) pivoted its California Family Farmer Emergency Fund to support farmers and farm workers impacted by this year’s devastating winter storms. In less than two months, they received 193 applications totaling more than $1.7 million in grant requests, and have provided awards to 33 farmers for a total of $165,000. CAFF is actively fundraising to meet as much of the demand as they can. RLF grantees CAFF, California FarmLink, and Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) have initiated important emergency relief funds and loan programs since 2020 to help farmworkers and small farm owners contend with Covid and the numerous climate disruptions impacting California.

The lack of support during emergencies has increasingly inspired calls to action by farmworker organizations and advocates. A coalition of workers’ rights groups from across the state developed a policy platform for outdoor workers’ safety from wildfire and smoke in 2022, scoring an early victory in Sonoma County last summer with the creation of a pilot insurance program that supports wage replacement for workers who cannot work in unsafe conditions.

Policymakers are taking notice. State Senator María Elena Durazo and Assemblymembers Wendy Carrillo and Miguel Santiago introduced SB 227, which would create an Excluded Workers Program to pay undocumented, unemployed workers $300 per week for each week of unemployment, up to 20 weeks. And State Senators Melissa Hurtado and Tom Umberg recently introduced SB 262, which would create the California Farmworkers Drought Resilience Pilot Project. 

In addition to these measures, we need to implement more nature-based solutions to protect communities. The small town of Hamilton City, along the Upper Sacramento River, fought for 35 years to improve its levee system. Like Pajaro, the town of 1,900 consists of mostly low-income, Spanish-speaking farmworkers, and like Pajaro, its needs had been neglected by an infrastructure improvement formula that favors affluent, urban areas. After decades of community advocacy, Hamilton residents have so far been protected from flooding thanks to significant public funding and strong partnerships resulting in levee setbacks and riparian restoration. This example reminds us that investments in nature-based solutions have immediate benefits, today, to protect communities at risk from climate disasters.

As communities throughout California take action to defend life and property in the face of dire predictions from the latest IPCC report, let’s honor the life and legacy of César Chávez by listening to the stories of frontline communities and farmworkers and making sure they are included in investments toward a safer future.