By Oregon AFL-CIO president Graham Trainor
Sebastian Francisco Perez: A 38 year old farmworker, husband, brother, and son went to work at Ernst Nursery and Farms in St. Paul, Oregon in the midst of the record-setting heat wave on Saturday, June 26, but the promise of a safe return at the end of his shift was broken. The loss of Mr. Perez the day after his 38th birthday was shameful, heartbreaking, preventable, and highlights—yet again—the complex and diverse dangers that so many workers face today when they punch the clock.
Mr. Perez was a Guatemalan immigrant who was working hard in Oregon’s nursery industry to save money to become a father and start a family. He was one of nearly 200,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers in Oregon who have faced one of the most dangerous and deadly years imaginable—heat, cold, historic wildfires, all during a global pandemic. Oregon’s labor movement and worker advocates in every corner of the state mourn the loss of Mr. Perez and send our heartfelt condolences to his family. We also recommit to and redouble our fight for safe workplaces for every worker, as well as adequate protections for the complex and changing hazards facing so many Oregonians on the job.
This loss is unacceptable, and we must do more.
While we’ve been encouraged by the recent emergency rule adopted by Oregon-Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) aimed at ensuring workplaces are safe from high heat, this 180-day emergency temporary standard is not enough to address these long-term workplace dangers. That’s why our focus will remain on securing a strong and enforceable permanent workplace protection rule for workers exposed to extreme heat and smoke as we continue to face increasingly harsh summer heat and wildfire seasons. Farmworkers, letter carriers, construction workers, warehouse workers, and any worker who is exposed to these types of dramatic and dangerous conditions are counting on us to keep fighting.
It’s hard to think of a time when the intersectionality between the struggles for justice at work and the fight for climate justice has been more obvious than these past few weeks as we’ve reeled from the devastation of these recent extreme heat events. Our climate is changing, our economy is changing, and workplaces are changing. That means the decisions that policy makers and regulators make on workplace safety standards and worker protection laws must keep up while also ensuring that our state agencies have the capacity to enforce these standards and laws. As the saying goes, a law is only as good as it is able to be enforced.
The loss of Mr. Perez on June 26 should never have happened. The news about Ernst Nursery and the farm labor contractor who he worked for was also disturbing. Both of these employers had repeated OSHA violations on their records, multiple worker safety complaints had been filed, and the federal Department of Labor had even fined the labor contractor for failing to provide safety information to workers. Because our state agencies currently lack the enforcement capacity needed to truly protect workers and because employers with health and safety violations are often fined so little—if at all— there is no real incentive for them to do what it takes to keep workers safe.
As this recent extreme heat event and last year’s historic wildfire season become more the rule than the exception, workers need and expect more from our state government.
Pushing back on employers looking to protect their bottom line at the expense of worker safety is never easy, but the loss of Mr. Perez should be our state’s constant reminder of the moral imperative we have to always do more, always keep pushing, and never stop fighting for the life-saving worker protections that can help our state guarantee that fundamental yet essential promise we must make to every worker and their family to keep them safe.
The Oregon AFL-CIO is a 138,000-member-strong federation of labor unions.