By Anne Blythe
As the sun dipped toward the horizon, pulling the last streaks of daylight from the sky over North Carolina’s capital city, dozens of migrant workers raised flickering tealights.
They gathered with advocates a bit more than a stone’s throw from offices of the state Department of Labor to rally for measures to protect workers from extreme heat in agricultural fields, the food service industry, construction, transportation and warehousing jobs.
José Arturo Gónzalez Mendoza, a 30-year-old farmworker from Guanajuato, Mexico, died Sept. 5 after harvesting sweet potatoes in a Barnes Farming field in Nash County. Temperatures that week rose into the 90s, according to Accuweather.
The state labor department has said it’s investigating his death.
The rally-goers in Raleigh the first weekend of November hoisted a large poster of Gónzalez Mendoza and four other migrant farmworkers who have died in North Carolina in recent years.
“Ni una vida mas,” they chanted. “Not one more life lost.”
The event, organized by the Farmworker Advocacy Network, It’s Our Future, Casa Azul de Wilson and NC FIELD, was the same week as Dia De Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, a holiday to honor the deceased. It is traditionally celebrated Nov. 1 and Nov. 2.
Gónzalez Mendoza, a husband and father of two sons, and other migrant farmworkers who died were honored with brightly colored altars — known as ofrendas — set up on portable tables.
Some of the deaths occurred during the coronavirus pandemic, but much of the focus was on extreme heat and the health problems that can result from prolonged exposure to such conditions.
“The majority of heat-related harm is preventable through the implementation of practical measures by employers, yet there are currently no standards targeting the prevention of heat-related illnesses at work,” a petition circulated by the Farmworker Advocacy Network states.
“As the heat in North Carolina continues to intensify and become more humid, we must take long-overdue action to protect essential workers from preventable harm. We must prioritize the lives of North Carolina workers and protect them from the extreme weather conditions they face.”
In the sweet potato fields
Gónzalez Mendoza arrived at the Barnes farm in Spring Hope on Aug. 25 with a H-2A guest farmworker visa, according to a news release issued by Barnes Farming & Farm Pak and posted on WFAE’s website.
Eleven days later, he was working in a sweet potato field when he reported to a supervisor on site that he was not feeling well, the release stated.
There are several versions of what happened next.
One, from the news release, stated Gónzalez was sent to a bus used to transport workers to and from the field to rest.
“Shortly thereafter, one of our on-site management personnel checked on him and immediately called 911 for medical assistance,” the release stated.
But Gónzalez Mendoza’s brother, Gustavo, who also was a guest worker at the farm, told El Centro Hispano that when Jose complained of not feeling well he was told to keep working. He fainted and they rushed him toward the truck, but they found no water and immediately called emergency dispatchers.
“This story is unfortunately all too familiar, and we would like to help his surviving brother and family with the funeral and repatriation costs,” the site states in English and Spanish. “Jose Arturo was an H2A worker that worked long and arduous hours in the blazing heat and harsh conditions. Help us support his family in this very distressing time. Jose Arturo had two small kids and a wife who will now be needing all the financial support they can get.”
Leticia Zavala, leader of El Futuro Es Nuestro, said recently that enough funds had been raised to transport Gónzalez Mendoza’s body to Mexico, and his brother had been able to go with him.
Migrant worker advocates hope the sadness and raw emotion of the moment can help bring needed attention to working conditions that they fear will get worse as climate change brings more extreme weather.
They encouraged workers to speak up about subpar living conditions. At many farms, air conditioning is not a given in worker quarters, making it difficult for people who have been tending crops on baked earth under the blazing sun to cool their bodies at night.
Workers privately complain of too few water and food breaks. They talk about employers taking their visas and other documents so they cannot go elsewhere. They also worry that complaints can lead to job loss or being blacklisted for any future work opportunities.
On the homefront
Liz Mizelle, a professor of nursing at East Carolina University, has spent a lot of time researching the impacts of extreme heat and climate change on the estimated 150,000 farmworkers in North Carolina.
At the rally in Raleigh, she rattled off statistics about farmworker safety in hopes of spurring change.
Farmworkers are 35 times more likely to die from heat, her research has shown, and that number is even higher for Latinos.
“Three times more likely than non-Latinos,” Mizelle said.
Mizelle, who lives in Windsor and has come from a long line of crop tenders and farmers, researched the heat effect on taller row crops such as corn and tobacco.
On extremely hot days, a breeze can kick up and bring some relief for field workers. In corn and tobacco fields, though, that stirring of the air doesn’t always reach pickers in the thick of the crop rows. Instead, water can evaporate from the crop leaves, stems and flowers — a process called evapotranspiration — and increase humidity levels as pickers work.
Historically, Mizelle said, North Carolina is one of the top states for farmworker deaths from heat. That’s partly because of extended heat seasons and the impact extreme temperatures can have on nicotine in tobacco crops and pesticides used by some farmers.
“Drinking water is so crucial,” Mizelle told the crowd.
Mizelle suggests that agricultural employers begin to use wet bulb readings, which incorporate humidity and other factors to give a better sense of the conditions workers will be in.
This summer, President Joe Biden took to his presidential pulpit to let the country know that he planned to use federal tools to make working conditions better for farmworkers and laborers who feel the brunt of extreme heat.
There had been an onslaught of national headlines about heat domes in the Southwest and hot-tub-like temperatures in the ocean off southern Florida.
Biden issued a hazard alert for heat, which ramped up protections for workers, and urged the federal labor department to step up enforcement against employers who were not complying.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 1,300 deaths in the United States each year are due to extreme heat. The Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, founded in 2019, released a report, “Extreme Heat: The Economic and Social Consequences for the United States,” which offers a grim picture of what those numbers could be a quarter century from now. By 2050, the report states, nearly 60,000 Americans could die that year from heat-related health conditions.
As high temperatures can lead to heat stroke and cardiovascular deaths, dehydration can contribute to diminished kidney function.
In the absence of clear federal, state and local law, some municipalities are reacting to advocates lobbying for change by adopting local standards for outdoor work and temperature-related restrictions.
In North Carolina, there’s a renewed push for change. It should be a priority for the state’s labor secretary and lawmakers, the migrant worker advocates said. They contend that while some people might say a rule to protect workers from laboring in extreme heat might be costly, they add that not doing anything will cost employers too.
“It is unacceptable for any more farmworkers to die from heat,” said Kendall Wimberley, a policy advocate for Toxic Free NC.
Clarification: Leticia Zavala is the leader of El Futuro Es Nuestro. A previous version of this article listed a former affiliation.