A bill that would increase protections for California’s farmworkers during hazardous smoky conditions created by seasonal wildfires is making its way through the state legislature.
Assembly Bill 73, also known as the Farmworker Wildfire Smoke Protections Act, recently passed the Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment with unanimous (7-0) bipartisan support, and has now been referred to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
Authored by Assemblymember Robert Rivas, AB 73, would, among other things, require the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) to create a stockpile of N95 masks that can be easily distributed to farmers during a wildfire. It would also mandate each Cal/OSHA regional office to dispatch specialized “strike teams” to ensure that farmers are keeping their employees safe during major unhealthy air quality events, including wildfires.
The California Latino Legislative Caucus in an announcement earlier this month included AB 73 as one of its priority pieces of legislation for the 2021 session.
“We can’t stand for our farmworkers, these essential workers, to risk their health and wellbeing every time they go out into the fields to harvest the food that we all eat,” Rivas said during the announcement.
Rivas is the representative for the state’s 30th Assembly District, which encompasses the Pajaro and Salinas valleys, and also serves as vice-chair of the California Latino Legislative Caucus.
The bill comes on the heels of the worst wildfire season in California’s history. Last year, roughly 4.2 million acres were lost in nearly 10,000 fire incidents, according to Cal Fire. Thirty-three people died and more than 10,000 structures were damaged or destroyed.
The Central Coast and South Santa Clara County were particularly devastated last year by a quartet of fires (CZU Lightning Complex, SCU Complex, River Fire and Carmel Fire) that filled the skies with smoke for weeks as firefighters struggled to contain the flames.
Many farmworkers worked through the hazardous conditions, and although employers are required by Cal/OSHA to provide an N95 mask for voluntary use when the air quality index for particulate matter 2.5 exceeds 151—a level deemed unsafe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—some employees reported that they never received a mask.
Locally, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties distributed tens of thousands of masks to local farmers thanks to a shipment of at least 1.4 million masks to 35 counties from the California Office of Emergency Services.
“Despite the fact that here in California we have this first-in-the-nation emergency standard requiring employers to protect farmworkers from wildfire smoke, many farm and agriculture workers in our state did not get the workplace protections that they needed last year,” Rivas said.
Assemblymember Ash Kalra, whose 27th District covers sections of eastern San Jose, in a press release said that the bill was a vital “piece of legislation that will help provide critical protective equipment to our farmworkers.”
“California agricultural workers are the backbone of our state’s health and wellbeing, and we cannot wait to act on protecting these essential workers during an extraordinarily vulnerable time,” he said.
AB 73 is joint-authored by Assembly Members Kalra, Lorena Gonzalez and Eduardo Garcia.
As it stands now, the bill would also require Cal/OSHA to develop and distribute information on wildfire safety to agricultural employees in Spanish and English and also via pictograms.