A farmworker fights the Thomas Fire on Dec. 7, 2017, near Fillmore, California. Strong Santa Ana winds pushed multiple wildfires across the region, expanding across tens of thousands of acres and destroying hundreds of homes and structures. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

As climate change continues to worsen and natural disasters become more difficult to predict outside of usual seasons, workers are organizing to demand protections from their employers across the country amidst these conditions. With tornadoes ravaging the Midwest outside of the usual April-June season and unpredictable wildfires constantly threatening farmworkers in the Northwest, workers across all industries are left vulnerable to natural disasters with no hazard pay, disaster insurance, or proper precautions in place. 

While the tornado season in Illinois is usually from April through June, in the last few years, almost half of all Illinois tornadoes have happened in the fall or winter, ranging from September through February, making them increasingly difficult to predict. Similarly, wildfires are most likely to occur from May to October, but there is no official season. For workers who are not given paid time off, such as farmworkers, this means a natural disaster has the double capability of destroying their lives and their livelihoods, leaving them unpaid and unprotected in the midst of climate calamity.

“Workers are simply asking for disaster insurance to be able to make sure that if they’re not able to work because of climate change disaster, that they should not be penalized for that,” says Max Bell Alper, executive director of North Bay Jobs with Justice, a workers’ rights organization.

Since a tornado hit Illinois earlier this month, causing an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville to collapse and kill six workers, organizers’ calls for workplace safety policies and federal regulations on emergency preparedness have only been strengthened. In the North Bay in California, farmworkers have organized with Jobs with Justice to demand what they call “the 5 for farmworkers in fires,” five demands that include trainings in workers’ native languages, disaster insurance, community safety observers, premium hazard pay, and clean bathrooms and water. 

For Erick L., a farmworker organizer with Jobs with Justice, meeting their demands is a question of recognizing farmworkers’ humanity. Erick immigrated to California from Mexico in 2015, and though he was born without his left arm, he began seeking work as a grape farmer in the North Bay vineyard industry. At first, he was refused work because of prejudice and assumptions that he could not complete the strenuous physical labor required of the job. But, eventually, he was given a job as a farmworker at a vineyard in Santa Rosa.

“I was curious about working in the vineyards,” said Erick. “I worked in every part of the process right up until you harvest the grape. A lot of bosses won’t give you breaks, they’ll humiliate you.”

Erick worked as a grape farmer for about five years in continuously deteriorating conditions. He was paid $15 an hour during the off season, and during the peak harvest season, he was paid by the pound, or by how many buckets of grapes he could harvest. But, throughout his time as a farmworker, he was never given disaster insurance or any assurance that he would be paid for time lost due to wildfires.

“Nothing is certain during a fire,” Erick says. “We are all risking our lives to keep our jobs.”

Erick worked from 2017 through 2019, including during the October 2019 Kincade Fire that coincided with the peak harvest season for grapes, making workers dependent on working during the harvest in spite of the dangers. Throughout the season, he recalls intensely smoky conditions, and an uneasy sense of dizziness, chaos, and fear in the midst of being evacuated.

“It’s just the impotence of not knowing where to run, everyone is in chaos,” he recalls. “Even the main road, the 101 is saturated from every angle, you just don’t know which way to go or how to get out.”

While attempting to evacuate and save themselves, many workers are caught in a Catch-22: save their jobs or their lives. 

“If the boss tells you to go work, and you’re leaving, what do you do?” says Erick. “Even if you’re risking your life, you have to do it. I’ve worked under dangerous conditions but I wouldn’t do it again.”

In addition to advocating for basic protections and resources for farmworkers, Jobs with Justice is also advocating for disaster insurance. While the luxury wine industry has crop insurance in which 60% of the premiums for agricultural businesses are paid for by federal tax dollars, the actual workers harvesting and tending to the crops receive no insurance whatsoever.

“There’s nothing guaranteed to workers in that situation, and crop insurance is actually very highly subsidized by federal tax dollars,” says Erick. “We have a program in place as a society, as a country to say that when there’s a disaster, we want to make sure that the farms and businesses don’t go under, and that’s something that we collectively put money towards, but there’s nothing like that for farm workers.”

In 2022, Alper hopes to work with the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors for the Ag Pass Program, a program that allows agricultural businesses to take workers into evacuation zones, to include the “5 for Farmworkers in Fires” demands in their program.  

“We believe that if the county is going to choose to let people into evacuation zones where nobody else is allowed to be, people should get training in their first and primary language,” Alper said. “At the very least, people should be receiving additional compensation for doing that, and at the very least people should be able to not have to make those choices [and] be able to know that they can get paid even if they don’t choose to go into hazardous conditions.”

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...