The Lilies of the Field

A Labor Day Tribute

The heatwave that hit the Pacific Northwest this summer was unprecedented, but it was not unexpected. There had been ample warnings for over a week; everyone knew it was coming.

And yet, fully aware that the day’s temperature would reach over 105 F, Sebastian Perez and his fellow workers were sent out to the fields, with no special provisions for water or breaks, and no tents or other structures for shade.

As a migrant farmworker in Oregon’s verdant Willamette Valley, Sebastian Perez worked 10 hours a day, at a rate of $14 per hour. No overtime—farmworkers, even documented ones, are excluded from federal laws requiring overtime pay—no paid days off, no health care, and no inconvenient visits from OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) officials.

But Sebastian Perez had come here to work. His dream was to return to his beloved wife in Guatemala with enough money to build them a house. It was going to take some time—first he would need to pay off his debt of 12,000 U.S. dollars to the coyotes who had delivered him across the border—but Sebastian remained hopeful.

Sebastian’s death was as gruesome as it was preventable. Ironically, he spent his last day on earth installing 30-pound irrigation pipes between rows of young trees so that they would have enough water to survive the intense heat.

Because the trees were valuable. And Sebastian was not.

Of the estimated 116 Oregon residents who perished in the extreme heat of late June, three of them were outdoor workers. Officials in the state government, recognizing that these record-breaking heatwaves will become more commonplace as our planet grows increasingly hotter, have announced a set of emergency rules for outdoor workers during dangerous heat events; shade and drinking water whenever the temperature rises above 80 F, and, when it jumps above 90 F, 10-minute cool-down periods for every two hours of work.

Sebastian’s hat and water jug, along with a cross made of sticks, mark the spot where he died.
Photo by Jeff Goodell.

On the federal level, OSHA has been talking about setting a national standard for workers in extreme heat for decades. So far, however, these discussions haven’t gone beyond producing guidelines for employers and encouraging them to provide water breaks and cooling areas for their workers.

On Labor Day, we honor all American workers. We extol their resilience, ingenuity, and productivity; we celebrate them as the backbone, the engine, and the builders of a mighty nation.

We proudly proclaim that our workers are essential, and yet we continue to treat them as expendable.


Editor’s note: For further reading about Sebastian’s life, climate negligence, and dangerously insufficient worker protections, please read Peter Goodell’s excellent and thoughtful “Sebastian Perez did not need to diein the August 17 edition of Rolling Stone


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