HEAT WAVE: As health agencies advise staying inside, farmworkers will be on the job around Salem

(Yadira Lopez/Malheur Enterprise)

Farmworkers in the Willamette Valley know hot weather means blueberries will ripen faster.

That means more work to be done during a heat wave that’s expected to send local temperature soaring into the triple digits this weekend.

As the Salem area prepares for the heat, organizers with Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, Oregon’s Woodburn-based farmworker union, have been busy. Local farmworkers have been texting organizers letting them know of work plans.

“People are definitely worried,” said Reyna Lopez, the group’s executive director. She said many workers have reported they’re starting early in the morning to try to finish by 2 p.m. and avoid the afternoon’s worst heat and sun.

Marion and Polk counties have about 16,600 farmworkers, Lopez said. Many are moving on to blueberry farms this week as the strawberry season wraps up.

Oregon employers have an obligation to protect their workers from excessive heat, said Aaron Corvin, spokesman for the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That means providing training about heat-related illness and prevention, giving extra breaks in a cool area and making cool water available to employees.

From 2016 to 2020, 46 people received benefits through Oregon’s workers’ compensation system for heat-related illnesses, the agency said in a news release.

Corvin said the agency strongly recommends postponing heavy labor outdoors in light of the weather forecast.

The Oregon Farm Bureau sent information to members Friday morning about steps for preventing heat-related illness in workers and reminding them of state resources available for consultations.

PCUN has been broadcasting similar information to workers this week using its radio station, Radio Poder. That includes encouraging workers to buddy up and monitor each other for signs of illness, Lopez said. The group also translated some state flyers into Spanish and distributed information to workers.

Lopez said organizers will be available over the weekend and in contact with farmworkers to deliver water as needed, provide rides home for those who aren’t feeling well or otherwise assist. She said hot weather work is challenging because most fields have little or no natural shade. PCUN is hoping employers will provide tents for shade as well as ample water.

Lopez said ideally, workers would be able to stay home and rest in excessive heat.

“As we’ve learned throughout the pandemic and every other disaster that’s happened this year, people cannot afford to take these days off,” she said. “We’re staying alert for this weekend.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.