Undocumented Workers Go Unprotected During California Wildfires

by Vins
Published: Updated:

The rise in severity and frequency of wildfires ravaging California has magnified the failure of employers and state agencies to protect workers’ health in fire zones. Alleen Brown’s September 2020 article for The Intercept highlights how these failures continue to harm the particularly vulnerable Latin American population of undocumented workers in Sonoma County, California. Brown’s article discusses the impact of fires on the health and safety of these unprotected and unequipped workers in fire evacuation zones, along with the corporations and agencies who continue to put their lives at risk.

Though the threats posed from wildfires in Sonoma County reached dangerous enough levels to warrant resident evacuations, the county agricultural commissioner continued to authorize “evacuation-area access passes” for dozens of undocumented workers, many of whom are from Latin American Indigenous communities. Brown stated, “For the workers, their hands were forced by a combination of circumstances as toxic as the ash that falls over the region’s famous vineyards: the economic drive to keep the wine industry going; the lack of resources for non-Spanish-speaking workers; a near-total dearth of economic support; the economic stresses of the coronavirus pandemic; and a climate of fear around immigration enforcement that prevents the workers from asking for help.”

As to how this practice continues Brown noted, “Officials that regulate evacuation order exemptions have close relationships to agricultural associations that serve local business owners’ interests.” She pointed out that the threat of financial loss motivates officials to authorize harvesting, even when the conditions pose a threat to workers’ health.

Kent Pinkerton of the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety at the University of California, Davis discussed with Brown how the regulations that purportedly protect agricultural workers remain glaringly insufficient. Pinkerton explained how the EPA’s Air Quality Index (AQI), which measures the concentration of tiny particulate matter in the air, is used to identify when personal protective equipment (PPE) such as N95 masks should be offered to or required for use by workers. California regulations currently state that masks/(PPE) must be offered to workers when the AQI reaches 151, but employers are not required to have workers utilize PPE until the AQI reaches 500.

Pinkerton went on to state that, “Really, at 151, no one should be working… the N95 masks—even the ones properly fitted—will eventually clog up and no longer be effective and actually cause labored breathing.” As for PPE not being required until the AQI reads 500, Pinkerton said that a reading of 500 is something only firefighters encounter. “If the AQI goes above 200, absolutely no workers should be in the field,” he told the Intercept.

Writing for the Fresno Bee, Manuela Tobias described how, during a period of significant wildfire smoke, farmworker groups reported “workers have virtually no masks, while the state and ag groups say they have distributed millions.” Tobias’s report also cited a Facebook poll conducted by United Farm Workers Secretary Treasurer Armando Elenesin in which, “335 farmworkers said they had not received an N95 mask, whereas 31 people said they had,” despite official reports of widespread distribution.

The Intercept noted that agricultural workers exposed to wildfire smoke would also likely have less access to  health care due to their lower socioeconomic status, and that the dangers of wildfire smoke were compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Fortunately, organizations such as Movimiento Cultural de la Unión Indígena and UndocuFund are providing resources to these workers and fighting for an amendment to the regulations intended to protect workers’ health and safety. Brown’s Intercept report noted that there has been resistance against such efforts from better-funded coalitions including the California Association of Winegrape Growers, the California Farm Bureau Federation, and Sonoma Winegrowers. These groups suggest the expense caused by updating the regulations would not be worth the day’s work.

Media coverage of workers’ health and safety being compromised by Sonoma County’s agencies and corporations amid California’s fires can be found from independent sources such as The Press Democrat and The Bohemian. The corporate media’s attention has been severely lacking, with coverage coming only from Sacramento’s local ABC and CBS affiliates, which Brown noted in her report. It is much easier to find corporate coverage of the wildfires’ impacts on the wine produced in Sonoma County.


Alleen Brown, “In California’s Wine Country, Undocumented Grape Pickers Forced to Work in Fire Evacuation Zones,” The Intercept, September 6, 2020, https://theintercept.com/2020/09/06/california-fires-undocumented-farm-workers/.

Manuela Tobias, “Some California Farmworkers haven’t had Masks during Wildfires. State Investigating,” The Fresno Bee, September 13, 2020,  https://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/article245477960.html.

Student Researcher: Diana Zahn (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Peter Phillips (Sonoma State University)