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Worsening Climate Events Push New York Farmworkers to Seek Resilience
New York Ag Connection - 09/22/2023

On a June summer morning, phones were pointed up at the hazy, rust colored sky overlooking the Long Island Sound. The air had a sci-fi movie glaze as a result of Canadian wildfires hundreds of miles away. Throughout the day, residents reported having difficulty breathing, and by the next morning, the air quality index showed just going outside for the day was the equivalent of smoking almost half of a pack of cigarettes.

But for some communities, the abrupt weather disaster did little to shake their daily routine. Farmworkers throughout Long Island’s North Fork had to continue their work on the land, some unaware of the full extent of health consequences that came with heavy, strenuous activity outdoors.

Margaret Palmquist, an organizer with a local chapter of Trabajadores Agrícolas Unidos, said that her farmworking community was unequipped to protect themselves from the smoke. “I think it caught a lot of people off guard… It was an unexpected crisis to deal with that people haven't really been used to confronting yet,” she said. “I know on a lot of the farms, they didn't say anything to the workers, which doesn't come as that much of a surprise.”

That day, some farmworkers were left with little information concerning what could happen to them if they went outside to perform heavy labor for extended periods of time. Many weren’t told they should be wearing masks to keep the smoke out of their lungs, and they weren’t informed that they were at significantly higher risk for having asthma attacks and developing adult-onset asthma as a result of their labors for the day.

Vilma, who didn’t share her last name to protect her safety, is originally from Guatemala and works in Riverhead. She was one of the farmworkers working under that day’s orange sky. “I didn’t feel much when it first started,” she recalled. “But there were a lot of people on my farm who said that they felt they couldn’t breathe and were so dizzy they thought they were going to pass out.”

While this summer’s dangerous air quality rolled in over the Long Island Sound with sudden force, other impacts of climate change on this workforce aren’t quite as obvious. Increasingly intense heat and humidity can fly under the radar. Not all employers recognize the need for updated safety regulations from year to year, even though practices that might have been safe and healthy years earlier now pose an increasing risk.

“Our bosses tell us that it’s too hot and we have to go rest,” said Vilma, who has been a farmworker at a large nursery farm for 10 years. “In the summertime, if it’s very hot, they give us some water or ice cream or they tell us we can’t work and we have to go.

“The same if there’s an lightning storm or if it rains too much, you can’t work.”

Earlier this year, reports showed that Long Island is ranked fourth in the nation among major population centers for exposure to risks that climate change presents – both physical and economic. Long Island is at comparatively high risk of facing not only emergency climate events, but also rising temperatures.

"What can a person do in this situation?” said Yadira Vasquez, who organizes with UFCW Local 888. “A person who is working 60 hours a week in greenhouses feels like a sauna, because when it is 90 degrees outside, under that plastic, it is like 110 degrees, and they have no breaks. What can a person do against that?”

“I imagine that in those cases, those workers, yes, they are concerned about the earth, about the world, but also about themselves, about their health,” she added.

In the face of both long-term climate challenges and disasters, farmworkers on the North Fork shared in a community conversation with WSHU that their biggest problem is a lack of preparedness. Participants emphasized that many people within their community not only lack direction in knowing what to do during short-term climate disasters, but also aren’t aware of the resources available to maintain and improve their health in the long-term.

Palmquist, with vineyard workers union RWDSU Local 338, took part in the community conversation.

“We’re a part of nature,” she said. “And that’s not saying we should go with the flow and take whatever our job gives us and do nothing about it. But [rather], not only does nature deserve more respect, we deserve more respect.”

But preparedness, especially for communities like seasonal and migrant farmworker communities, can be a complicated task.


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