Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill Monday aimed at reducing farmworkers’ exposure to wildfire smoke by allowing them access to the state’s stockpile of N95 masks.
Assembly Bill 73, authored by Assemblymember Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, also known as the Farmworker Wildfire Smoke Protections Act, would designate agricultural workers as “essential workers” to allow them access to the California Department of Public Health’s stockpile of personal protective equipment, including masks.
“California is holding corporations accountable and recognizing the dignity and humanity of our workers, who have helped build the fifth-largest economy in the world,” Newsom said in a statement after signing numerous workplace safety bills. “These measures protect marginalized low-wage workers, many of whom are women of color and immigrants, ensuring they are paid what they are due and improving workplace conditions. We are committed to having their backs as we work to build a stronger, more inclusive economy.”
The bill would also charge Cal-OSHA with sending a “wildfire strike team” to investigate wildfire smoke protection requirements at agricultural work sites when air quality standards reach dangerous levels. Under the bill, Cal-OSHA is required to distribute wildfire safety guidelines to farmworkers in both English and Spanish.
A similar bill was introduced last year by state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, to allow health care workers and other essential workers to access the state’s N95 mask stockpile amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our state is yet again experiencing a catastrophic wildfire season and continues to battle COVID-19. While many of us have had the privilege to work from home, our farmworkers weren’t so lucky – instead, they continue to work the smoky fields to feed the nation and sustain a multibillion dollar industry,” Rivas said in a statement.
California employs an estimated 800,000 agricultural workers, according to a study released by the Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas and the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. The state’s agricultural industry produces an estimated $50 billion in revenue a year.
The bill was backed by the California Latino Legislative Caucus, which said it was essential to increase workplace protections for farmworkers from poor air quality caused by California’s wildfires.
One 2020 study conducted by the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety at UC Davis found the increase of severe wildfires in the state posed serious health risks for California’s agricultural workers exposed to ash. Researchers recommended that policymakers pay close attention to the “health risks of farmworkers working in areas recovering from a wildfire and/or in areas with repeated wildfires.”
Help us cover the issues most important to you through The Sacramento Bee's partnership with Report for America. Contribute now to support Kim Bojórquez's coverage of Latino issues in California for the Capitol Bureau — and to fund new reporters.