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Grijalva: On César Chávez’s 95th birthday, President Biden must deliver for farmworkers

Florencio Gueta Vargas had always worked the land, beginning on his family ranch in his hometown of Zacatecas, Mexico, and later in the fields of California and Washington state. He was a father of six daughters, and the head of his household. In July of 2021, he’d worked at Virgil Gamache Farms in Yakima County, Wash., for more than 18 years—but he’d always hoped someday to return to and die in his homeland.

He never had the chance. On July 29, 2021, at the age of 69, he died. That day, it was 100.8 degrees. The coroner ruled his cause of death was heat stress.

Only a few weeks earlier, the historic Pacific Northwest heat wave also took 38-year-old Sebastián Francisco Perez. Sebastián was moving irrigation lines at Ernst Farms and Nursery in the Willamette Valley, Ore., when he went missing. When his fellow workers found him, he was unconscious in the fields and could not be revived. The temperature that day was 115 degrees.

Today, March 31, is marked as César Chávez Day. It’s a day to honor the legacy of the labor activist, co-founder of the farmworkers labor movement and what is now the United Farm Workers, who fought for dignity, livable wages and fair working conditions for these too often overlooked workers throughout his life.

On his 95th birthday, we are far from the justice Chávez sought. But there are solutions the Biden administration can implement today to protect those who feed us, and ensure that there are no more stories like Florencio’s or Sebastián’s. Today, we’re asking President Biden to act on the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ recommendation for a national heat standard and call on Congress to pass the Fairness for Farm Workers Act to update the nation’s labor laws to ensure farmworkers receive overtime pay, just like everyone else. We must ensure that the men and women who harvest our food receive the wages they have earned and need.

Florencio and Sebastián are two of at least 384 farmworkers who have died of heat-related causes in the United States in the last decade. And with climate change continuing to escalate, we can expect these stark statistics to get much worse.

But currently, there is no permanent, federal heat standard covering outdoor and indoor workers. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, heat has killed 815 U.S. workers have and seriously injured almost 70,000 more between 1992 and 2017. There is no standard reporting mechanism for heat-related death and injury so it is likely this number is higher. Heat-related injuries and death are only going to increase as the climate becomes hotter as a result of climate change. The summer of 2021 marked the hottest summer on record in the contiguous U.S. and the sixth hottest year on record, with Death Valley, Calif., experiencing the hottest day ever recorded at 130 degrees. Scientists fear 2022 will also be among the seven hottest years ever recorded.

Farmworkers are roughly 20 times more likely to die of heat-related causes than workers in all other civilian occupations. In addition to requiring increased heat exposure, farmworkers are paid based on their productivity. As a result, taking a break to get out of the sun or to drink water can result in lower wages for these workers. And the Department of Labor estimates that roughly 50% of farmworkers are undocumented, who are less likely to be able to speak up for their rights in the workplace out of fear of retaliation

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Last August, I joined Rep. Judy Chu (CA-27) and more than 20 other members of Congress in calling on President Biden to do more to direct the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue a permanent federal heat standard.  The standard should be modeled after the provisions in H.R. 2193, the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatalities Prevention Act, introduced by Reps. Chu, Bobby Scott (VA-03), and Alma Adams (NC-12) and I in the House and supported by the United Farm Workers. In the Senate, the companion bill, S.1068, has been introduced by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), and Alex Padilla (D-CA).

The legislation would require employers to provide the following to employees: adequate hydration, rest breaks, areas for rest breaks that are shaded (in the case of outdoor work) or air-conditioned (in the case of indoor work), medical services and training to address signs and symptoms of heat-related illness, and a plan for acclimatization to high-heat work conditions.

The challenge, of course, remains the Senate. We know that Republicans in the Senate will not take up this bill, and are intent on keeping the filibuster in place to continue blocking legislation that would bring equity and justice. That’s why we need to use every tool available—including executive action. And it’s why when the Congressional Progressive Caucus released its comprehensive executive action agenda for the Biden administration, policies to expand worker power —including a national, permanent heat standard— were included.

Heat threatens workers in a variety of indoor and outdoor workplaces—but, it disproportionately impacts farmworkers, who are also disproportionately Latino. Since 2010, Latinos have accounted for a third of heat-related fatalities despite making up only 17% of the U.S. workforce. The president has declared his commitment to racial justice, and a national heat standard would be a way for him to match that with action.

President Biden has announced a series of actions to address heat-related death and injury that lay the groundwork for a strong OSHA heat standard. The Department of Labor launched an initiative to address heat exposure for indoor and outdoor workers, including farmworkers. The administration increased the number of cooling centers in communities. And, the Biden administration created an Interagency Working Group on Extreme Heat to coordinate a holistic response.

These are great first steps, but they don’t go far enough. That is why the Congressional Progressive Caucus included in its executive action agenda a call for the Biden administration to direct OSHA to issue a permanent heat standard to ensure farmworkers are protected. With the peak of summer only months away, time is of the essence. We need action urgently before the temperature becomes warmer and more farmworkers, warehouse workers, construction workers, and workers in other heat-exposed industries across our nation are unfairly left to face excruciating and hazardous work conditions with little protection.

I will continue to advocate for the passage of legislation that would give farmworkers additional legal protections, better working conditions and a pathway to citizenship. On César Chávez’s 95th birthday, President Biden has a chance to be the leader who delivers fair wages, compensation, and justice for farmworkers by updating our labor laws and declaring a national, permanent heat standard.

U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva represents Arizona’s 3rd Congressional District.

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