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Farmworkers fired for seeking shelter from California wildfire

Published time: May 08, 2013 19:48
Edited time: May 09, 2014 16:29
AFP Photo / Joe Klamar

AFP Photo / Joe Klamar

A group of farm laborers who chose to seek shelter from the suffocating smoke of a California wildfire last week were terminated for taking a break.

At least 15 workers at Crisalida Farms in Oxnard, California, found themselves struggling to breathe last week as the Camarillo Springs wildfire blackened the sky with smoke and ash. The blaze damaged more than a dozen houses, threatened 4,000 homes, and burned a store of highly toxic pesticides that caught fire at an agricultural property.

Located just 11 miles south of the fire, workers at the Southern California strawberry farm had a difficult time breathing as they laboriously worked in the fields. Their boss had warned them that taking a break would compromise their jobs, and they were faced with a dilemma.

“The ashes were falling on top of us,” one of the workers told NBC LA. “[But] they told us if we leave, there would be no job to return to.”

On the evening of May 2, the Camarillo fire had reached about 10,000 acres and was only 10 percent contained. About 11,500 people had been evacuated at this point as hazmat teams warned locals not to inhale the smoke – especially since it contained toxic chemicals from the pesticides that had caught on fire.

But this warning was ignored by the management team of Crisalida Farms. The workers ultimately had to choose between their health or their jobs – and a group of 15 chose to walk off of the fields on May 2 to seek shelter from the suffocating smoke and ash.

When the workers returned to the fields on the morning of May 3, they found out that they had all been fired.

“While it hurts to lose work, one’s health is more important,” said one terminated farm worker.

Distressed about the situation, the laborers contacted the United Farm Workers union. Even though none of them were union members, the group tried to help them as best as they could. Lauro Barrajas, a UFW representative, met with the farm’s management team and argued that no laborers should be forced to work under dangerous conditions where health or safety is at stake.

“The smoke was very bad. [There’s] no doubt about that,” he told NBC.

A representative for Crisalida Farms argued that the workers left without permission and needed to file orders before walking off the job, according to the American television network Telemundo, which broadcasts in Spanish.

After negotiations, the farm company came to an agreement with the union and offered to rehire all 15 of the laid-off workers – but only one chose to return to the company that put its workers' health at risk.