When Maria Pineda, who goes by Letty, arrived in Florida from El Salvador in 1994, she wasn’t documented and didn’t speak the language, so she didn’t have many employment options. She started working in agriculture, harvesting ferns to be sold to florists. She was paid by the piece, not by the hour. She needed the money. “No trabajas, no comes,” she said: You don’t work, you don’t eat. She made just enough to cover rent and her necessities.
Pineda grew up in hot climates, but working 11-hour days, five or six days a week, in Florida summers was something else entirely. In the field, ferns are grown under dark, dense cloth that traps hot air, and in the greenhouse temperatures could be 10 to 20 degrees warmer. She was also working with pesticides, although no one told her what they were, that weakened her health and made her even more susceptible to heat. There was no bathroom or water close by, so she tried not to drink much in order to avoid the 15 minutes it took to walk to and from the bathroom, time she wouldn’t be paid for. She got a few 10-minute breaks but “no duraba mucho,” she said: They don’t last long. And sometimes she and her fellow workers were denied breaks entirely, told by supervisors that they weren’t legally obligated to give them.
Eventually, Pineda started going to the doctor often, every six months, to try to address the headaches and muscle pains she was having, not realizing she was experiencing symptoms of dehydration and heat stress. At work she felt dizzy and would get a burning sensation in her kidneys. She couldn’t sleep at night. She developed dark blotches on her face. She was always exhausted, which meant she struggled to function at home with her family, not just at work. She would take a bath when she got home but emerge still sweating, her body still hot. “El cuerpo siempre duele,” she said: Her body always hurt.
After two decades, Pineda quit and now works in the laundry room at a hospital. It’s hot, but “el sol es diferente,” she said: The sun is different. Yet she hasn’t left the experience of the fields behind her. She still has breathing problems, and while her pain has diminished, it’s not entirely gone. Sometimes when she’s out in the sun, she starts to panic, remembering what the heat did to her body.
The things that could have protected Pineda aren’t complicated. Farmworkers like her try to protect themselves by wearing the right clothing and bringing their own water, but what they really need to stay safe lies in the hands of their employers: more water than they can carry, access to shady areas, and payment when they take breaks to cool down.
Farmworkers’ exclusion from labor law that means they often don’t make minimum wage or overtime, or receive benefits like health insurance. Many are undocumented. “Workers know when something is wrong,” said Iris Figueroa, director of economic and environmental justice at Farmworker Justice. But they can’t risk their employment by complaining. And, as it stands, there are no formal rules requiring employers to protect employees like farmworkers from dangerous temperatures outside of a few states; Florida isn’t one of them. “When there aren’t any basic, minimal requirements, what we find is many employers just don’t have anything in place,” Figueroa said. “And workers suffer for it.”