Rick works 12-hour shifts at an unair-conditioned food manufacturing facility outside Portland, Oregon, whose products are shipped on in shelf-stable Tetra Paks found in grocery store aisles around the country. “After the packages get produced, a sample gets taken from the line and put in the incubation room that’s 95 degrees,” he told me over the phone. “If they bloat, then you know there’s a problem with package integrity,” and they’ll pull them. In the winter, Rick and his co-workers go in that constantly heated room to warm up, since the facility isn’t heated, either. This week, though, the incubation room was “significantly cooler than it was on the floor.”
During this week’s deadly heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, where air conditioning is sparse, work for many continued as usual. For some, that meant finding a dark corner at home to send emails and take conference calls. But for those who work outside or in unair-conditioned facilities, it meant slogging through grueling, sometimes deadly days that will only become more frequent as climate change accelerates. Hundreds across the region perished amid extreme temperatures, with British Columbia reporting a 195 percent uptick in sudden deaths.
Rick—whose name has been changed here to protect his identity—considers himself lucky. “I work the night shift, so I get to work at the hottest point of the day, but later on it cools off a little bit,” he said. He’s young, in good shape, and knows to look for signs of heat exhaustion. As a forklift operator, his job isn’t as physically demanding as others on the floor. “People who work in the direct food-processing area have to wear either a smock or a jumpsuit, like a lab coat or a full jumpsuit and pants. You can’t wear shorts or a tank top.”
“It’s hotter inside than outside because the equipment runs and creates ambient heat,” he told me. The equipment also tends to break down when it gets too hot, which can make production work all the more physically demanding. Extreme heat has been a problem in the facility before, and higher-ups at the company—eager to avoid slowdowns—have promised to buy more fans and an industrial-size air conditioner. Nothing of the sort has happened yet.
Rick said there was never any talk of shutting down operations, “which is kind of strange because we did actually shut down for the wildfires. I would think heat stroke is a more immediate health risk than smoke inhalation,” he added.
Last year’s fire season burned through 1.07 million acres in Oregon; this year’s could be even worse. Without a union, there isn’t a natural mechanism for Rick and his co-workers to demand days off or cooler facilities. “My M.O. is just to be as lazy as possible on those days. When the company is saying we don’t care about you, why would I care about them?”
Among the region’s most vulnerable workers are those in its agricultural sector, who can face firing, deportation, and blacklisting for speaking up about difficult or dangerous work conditions. On Saturday, a farmworker who had recently arrived from Guatemala died in 104-degree temperatures in the Willamette Valley. Ironically, many farmworkers come to the Pacific Northwest from California’s Central Valley or even Texas in search of cooler temperatures, said Rosalinda Guillen, a veteran farmworker organizer and the executive director of Community to Community, a Washington-based nonprofit focused on food sovereignty and immigrant rights.
Enforcement of the protections that are on the books for Washington farmworkers is sparse—growers are an influential political force, Guillen told me. Edgar Franks, the political director for Familias Unidas por la Justicia, or FUJ, an independent labor union, said workers “think cutting hours could help, but a lot of the places want to produce as much as they can, so they keep them out in the sun for as long as possible.” Workers are still paid by production quotas, said Guillen, so “if you’re expected to make a livable wage by meeting production quotas then you’re pushing your body to its maximum capacity because of the heat.”
Franks has gotten reports in recent days from people with nosebleeds and nausea, along with those who have suffered seizures and passed out. Community to Community saw workers continuing to pick blueberries with dehydration so severe that their faces swelled and started to lose sensation. “Their feet were swollen, their skin was breaking,” Guillen told me. “The symptoms of severe dehydration are very close to frostbite: The body tries to focus on the internal organs and keep the brain going, and the extremities begin to take damage.”
Among the biggest problems are poorly ventilated packing sheds, where apples and cherries arrive on conveyer belts to be sorted, washed, and sent to coolers before being shipped off for export or to grocery stores. With temperatures outside over 100 degrees, those inside warehouses can be 10 to 15 degrees warmer. “We’ve been receiving calls from workers wanting to go on strike and trying to force the industry into providing cool air and ventilation. They’re scared and they’re hot and they’re getting sick, and the work is continuing,” Guillen said.
The heat wave comes on top of a year of scant pandemic protections. Agricultural workers—many of them on temporary H-2A visas, with lower rates of vaccination than the general population—have continued to be crammed into company housing despite the Covid-19 threat. Last Thursday, Guillen’s organization got a call from a worker currently living with eight people in a room, who had recently been told to make room for eight more. “They’re worried about Covid and the heat. Can the small air conditioners that they have keep the room cool enough for all of them? And they will not go public on it because they’re afraid of retaliation, of getting sent back.”
“Workers see what happened last year with Covid-19,” Franks told me, “where they were thrown out there to fend for themselves with no [personal protective equipment] and expected to produce and show up to work every day. Now we’re seeing it again with the heat wave.” After two of its workers died of Covid-19 in July 2020, Gebbers Farm Operations was fined $2 million by Washington State’s Department of Labor & Industries, or L&I. But such fines are few and far between, and even deaths among farmworkers, organizers reckon, could be grossly underreported. Guillen sits on the Washington State Employment Security Department’s advisory committee for agricultural and seasonal workers. During one meeting, she recalled an L&I official noting that he had only found out about farmworker deaths through the media.
During wildfires last year, pickers worked not far from the flames and breathed in smoke coming down off the Canadian Rockies. Many reported headaches and passed out, according to Guillen. “Because there is no enforcement or clarity on rules, a lot of employers will have workers out there picking for 12-hour days trying to meet their production quotas,” however much smoke they might inhale in the process, Franks said. During the Pearl Hill Fire, a grower in Central Washington evacuated some 200 farmworkers, who were told to grab their documents and get on a company bus, to a city park in nearby Brewster with little notice. They slept in cars, many without blankets or even much food before locals began organizing to bring supplies. The next night, Northwest Public Broadcasting reported that most were relocated by their employer to alternate lodging. Ninety-one workers stayed at a Red Cross shelter set up at a local high school, well exceeding the state’s 15-person-per-cohort limit on company housing.
The roughly 500 Sakuma Bros. Berry Farm workers who have unionized with FUJ have a contract that allows them to have speedy and direct communication with management about safety protocols during heat waves, fires, and pandemics. But they’re a small minority of the state’s agricultural workforce. Unionizing agricultural workers could get harder thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling, which declared a California law that allows organizers onto company property during nonwork hours unconstitutional.
That’s part of why Franks said his union is pushing for state rules that go “beyond contracts,” with real regulatory enforcement power and staffing to require the “monitoring of heat and limiting hours of workers’ exposure, more frequent water breaks, shaded areas, ventilation for people in warehouses and training for supervisors.” (Nationally, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has no specific standards around work in extreme heat, though Democrats have introduced legislation to establish them.) The union is also interested, Franks said, in how to “transform the food system so that it’s not one of the leading causes of climate change in the first place.”
Agriculture accounts for nearly 7 percent of Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to its Department of Ecology; when factoring in transport and packaging, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that agriculture may account for 37 percent of global emissions. Franks has been involved in fights to pass climate policy in Washington State, including the HEAL Act. So has Guillen, who also co-leads Front and Centered, a statewide climate and environmental justice coalition that opposed the passage of the state’s controversial cap-and-trade measure in May.
“Farmworkers get it because they sense the changes and they see it and feel it getting hotter and drier every year,” said Guillen. “The changes that need to be made have to run deeper than worker protection. It’s the production processes of corporate agriculture that have got to stop, or change drastically.”
Even relatively protected workers face brutal conditions on the job in such extreme heat. Trish, who works as a housekeeper at a small bed and breakfast in Port Townsend, said she’ll regularly clock 10,000 steps on her Fitbit by 1 p.m. “Twenty to 30 flights of stairs is a normal workday,” she told me over the phone. She works five- to six-hour shifts. “Six hours of housekeeping is the maximum you can really do before you’re physically done,” added Trish, whose name has been changed here to protect her identity. Thanks to Covid-19, the cleaning regimen has gotten even more intensive. “We’re cleaning even more things, and taking extra care,” she said. “I do like being on my feet for my job, but during the summer it gets pretty miserable because we don’t have air conditioning, and fans and open windows can only do so much. With housekeeping, you can’t start your day at 7 a.m. to beat the heat because people are still in their rooms.”
Last Thursday, at the start of the heatwave, Trish had reached 15,000 steps before stopping for lunch at 3 p.m. “People were still taking vacations in the scorching heat, so we worked hard to get it done,” she said, adding that the temperature inside reached 90 degrees. “As the heat set in, we were taking more and more breaks. We had those cooling cloths around our necks to try and keep cool.” After her shift, Trish said, “I felt really nauseous and threw up,” which she realized later was a sign of heat exhaustion. Trish likes her boss, who she says encouraged her to take more frequent breaks and drink water and commiserated about the heat. But “if my boss had left for the North Pole and I was still expected to work, I would have just walked off the shift.”
That’s exactly what workers did at Voodoo Doughnuts, the iconic Portland pastry shop. Last Sunday, employees affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World’s Portland chapter went on strike from the chain’s Old Town location, alleging unsafe working conditions. “The weak A/C and water is not enough to protect the workers from the hottest day in Oregon history. In solidarity with each other the workers left together at 1:00 PM today,” Doughnut Workers United wrote in a June 27 Facebook post. Several employees told Eater they experienced heat exhaustion as ambient temperatures in the store climbed to 96 degrees and even higher next to fryers and ovens. “By the end of the day, I was doubled over with my head in a trash can,” one employee said. Voodoo has not recognized the union, which lost a June 21 National Labor Relations Board election. On Wednesday, DWU alleged in an Instagram post that the company had illegally fired three striking workers. Union spokesperson Mark Media told Willamette Week that they plan to file an unfair labor practice complaint with the NLRB.
In an emailed statement, Voodoo spokesperson Audrey Lincoff said the election “found that a union was not established. Accordingly, there is no union at Voodoo Doughnut Old Town.” Lincoff declined to comment on specifics of the firings during the heat wave strike, noting that the company does not “provide employment details about current or former employees, out of respect for their privacy.” She said Voodoo “took measures to address warmer than normal conditions.”
“I’ve lived here for most of my life, and I do not understand how anyone could deny climate change. It wasn’t like this when I was growing up in the 1990s. It wasn’t like this five years ago. It’s so unbelievably, intolerably different,” Trish told me. “I’m used to 70-degree summers. I do not remember a single wildfire choking the air when I was younger. It really feels like everything is speeding up.”
Rick said the heat and fires have made him think a lot about The Ministry of the Future, sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, which begins with record-setting temperatures in India triggering a mass casualty event. “It feels like climate disaster is a lot closer than we imagine. We’re all a lot more vulnerable than we thought before. This week solidified that for me,” he said. “On a day-to-day basis, I’m able to be happy and live a satisfied life. But when you zoom out to the bigger picture, I don’t see how you could.”
He noted, too, that he’s been watching the debates over climate policy in Washington with dismay. “If you acknowledged that climate change was real, you would be taking immediate, drastic steps to rectify that. Obviously that’s not happening … I don’t see much hope from this Congress, or really any progress. I would like to be proven wrong.”