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Fires Exacerbate Difficult Working Conditions For Farm Workers

Oralia Bautista in Firebaugh, CA.

As fires continue to ravage Northern California, farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley now have to protect themselves from poor air quality on top of COVID-19. One farm worker says it’s made working in the fields even harder.


Oralia Bautista is 34 years old. Six days a week she commutes with her husband from Fresno to pick tomatoes in Firebaugh. While working, she always wears a mask.


“It helps filter out the bad air we’re breathing, but it's also hard because well, it’s hard to breathe with the mask on to begin with,” she said.


The contractor she works for provides masks for the farm workers but they aren’t the recommended N95 masks that protect against the virus and poor air quality, she said. And with her allergies aggravated by the smoke, Bautista’s afraid people will assume she’s ill.         


“It's complicated because if someone needs to sneeze or cough due to the air quality, you have to try to hide it or else people will think you're sick,” she said. “And they might not call you back to work.”


Bautista is undocumented so working in the fields is the only way she can help provide for her family of four. That’s why she said she’ll continue to work in Firebaugh until the tomato harvest season is over. 

Madi Bolanos covered immigration and underserved communities for KVPR from 2020-2022. Before joining the station, she interned for POLITCO in Washington D.C. where she reported on US trade and agriculture as well as indigenous women’s issues during the Canadian election. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in anthropology from San Francisco State University. Madi spent a semester studying at the Danish Media and Journalism School where she covered EU policies in Brussels and alleged police brutality at the Croatian-Serbian border.