Sebastian Perez Did Not Have to Die
The extreme-heat death of an Oregon farmworker and hundreds of others in late June could have been avoided. Climate negligence and lagging worker protections are killing people
AUGUST 17, 2021 10:52AM EDT
Mourners attend a vigil for Guatemalan-born farmworker Sebastian Francisco Perez, 38, who died during the heat wave a week ago in Marion County while moving field irrigation lines, in St. Paul, Oregon, U.S. July 3, 2021. PCUN, Oregon’s Farmworker Union organized the vigil outside Ernst Nursery & Farms, the company where Perez was employed. REUTERS/Alisha Jucevic
On Saturday, June 26th, Sebastian Perez worked alone in a field at Ernst Nursery & Farms in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, about 35 miles south of Portland. He had just turned 38 years old, with dark eyes and a strong, sturdy build. He wore jeans, work-boots, a long sleeve cotton shirt, and a beige Swiss Tech safari-style hat that you could pick up at Walmart for $12. He had arrived in Oregon two months earlier after a treacherous journey from his home in Guatemala, through Mexico, and across the U.S. border. “He wanted to earn money to build us a little house in Guatemala,” his wife, Maria, tells me. “That was our dream.”
Perez had started work at 6 a.m., with only a brief break at lunch, dragging 30-pound irrigation pipes between rows of young trees so they would have enough water to ride out the heat wave everyone knew was coming. By noon, the sun was a shimmering ball of fire. Perez knew it was going to be a hot day, but he had no idea what that really meant. This was Oregon, after all, not Death Valley.
The day kept getting hotter: 102 F, 103 F, 104 F. By early afternoon, Perez’s heart pounded. Veins swelled in his arms and hands. He felt lightheaded, a little woozy. Maybe he took a few swigs from his plastic jug half-full of water — after sitting in the sun for hours, the water would have been almost hot enough to scald him. Maybe he looked across the field at the shady stand of Douglas fir in the distance and wondered if he could dare take a break. All around him were rows of young evergreen arborvitaes and boxwoods, two decorative trees grown by the nursery that are popular with Home Depot shoppers. They are plants of suburban sprawl, useful for filling in dead zones around the drive-up window at Starbucks, but too small to offer protection from the sun. In the east, Mt. Hood loomed on the horizon, an active volcano not unlike the volcanoes where Perez grew up.
He spoke to or messaged Maria, who was still in Guatemala, several times a day and missed her more and more the longer they were separated. At some point, in the merciless heat, with his heart pushing hot blood through his body and his hat soaked with sweat, he must have known he was in trouble. But he kept working. It was what he had come to America to do, and he never expected it would be easy.
At about 3 p.m., as the temperature hit 106 F and was still climbing, the guys working in other parts of the nursery knocked off for the day. They met under a tree and assumed Perez would join them soon. They drank water, they sweated, they waited. They called Perez’s cellphone, but no answer, which was weird, because he always kept his phone handy. Finally, they decided to go look for him. It took them a while to find him. He was laying there in the field, among the variegated boxwood, barely breathing. They tried to give him water, but it didn’t help. They dragged him over to the thin shade of a Douglas fir tree at the edge of the field. He was unconscious by then. At 3:37 p.m., they dialed 911. The call came into St. Paul’s fire department, which is about five miles away. The workers had a hard time communicating exactly where they were — they didn’t speak English well, and were far from the entrance to the nursery and unfamiliar with the names of the roads nearby — so it took the ambulance longer than it should have to get to the location. By then, Perez had stopped breathing. When the ambulance crew finally arrived, the color had drained from his face and he was dead. Later, the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened an investigation into Perez’s death, which is still ongoing, but the agency’s preliminary finding was a surprise to no one: What killed Sebastian Perez was the heat.
WHAT HIT THE PACIFIC
Northwest in late June was one of the most sudden and extreme heat waves ever recorded. It melted power lines, buckled asphalt, cooked a billion sea creatures. According to mortality data analyzed by The New York Times, the heat wave was responsible for more than 1,000 deaths, including 600 in Oregon and Washington, and another 440 in British Columbia. The actual count is likely even higher — heat-related deaths are notoriously difficult to tabulate, in part because heat often contributes to deaths that are attributed to other causes, such as heart attacks or strokes. One indicator of the toll the heat wave took on people’s health: On June 28th, one of the hottest days ever recorded in the Pacific Northwest — the temperature in Portland hit 116 F, nearly 40 degrees above average for that day — there were 1,038 heat-related ER visits to area hospitals. On the same day in 2019, there were 9 ER visits.
Map shows air temperature anomalies across the continental United States and Canada on June 27, 2021. Red areas are where air temperatures climbed more than 27°F (15°C) higher than the 2014-2020 average for the same day.
Goddard Earth Observing System
In the aftermath, there was a lot of discussion about how the heat wave was so deadly because the infrastructure of the Pacific Northwest is not built for extreme heat. That’s obviously true. Seattle ranks as the least air-conditioned city in a comparison of the top 15 metro areas in the U.S. Portland, too, is below the nationwide average.
But the idea that extreme heat can be solved by more A/C misrepresents the scale of the threat posed by heat waves. Yes, A/C (and the power to run it) is a survival tool. But it creates its own nightmares, including power consumption that threatens grid stability and huge increases in carbon pollution that warm the planet. More importantly, there are plenty of people for whom A/C is not an option, including homeless people and outdoor workers, not to mention animals, plants, and ecosystems. As Eric Dean Wilson puts it in his excellent new book, After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort: “Wealthier Americans have bought short-term comfort at the expense of the long-term comfort of the rest of the world, at the expense of other species, at the expense of other-than-human life.”
Extreme heat is predatory – like all predators, it goes after the weakest and most vulnerable. It kills people on the margins of our society, and in that way, exposes the moral and political failures in how we care for each other. Many of the people who died in the Pacific Northwest were old, alone, or in poor health. But others, like Perez, died because they were working in blatantly unsafe conditions. Kenton Scott Krupp, 51, was found dead at an Oregon Walmart warehouse. Temperatures had reached 97 F the day he died, and his coworkers saw him stumbling and struggling to speak. A roofer died in Hillsboro, Oregon, after collapsing from heat stress on June 28th.
What happens to your body when it is exposed to extreme heat is not pretty. The road to heatstroke looks like this: As soon as you step outside on a hot day, your blood grows warmer, heated by the sun’s radiation and your own rising metabolism. Keeping your body temperature at 98.6 F – the happy place for humans – now requires work. Receptors in your brain start telling your circulatory system to push more blood toward your skin, where the heat can be dissipated. Your sweat glands push salty liquid up to the surface of your skin. You sweat. As the sweat evaporates, the heat is carried away.
But the amount of heat your body can dissipate through sweat is limited. Your blood vessels dilate, trying to move as much overheated blood to the surface as possible. If you don’t find a place to cool off, your internal body temperature will rise quickly. And the harder you are working your muscles, the faster it will rise. Your heart will pump madly, trying to get as much blood as possible to your skin to cool off, but it can’t keep up. As your blood is shunted away, your internal organs – your liver, your kidneys, your brain – become starved for blood and the oxygen it carries. You feel lightheaded. Your vision dims and narrows. As your body temperature rises to 101 F, 102 F, 103 F, you feel wobbly — and due to the falling blood pressure in your brain, you will likely pass out. This is in fact an involuntary survival mechanism, a way for your brain to get your body horizontal and get some blood to your head and to stop you from any more activity that might further elevate your temperature.
At this point, if you get help and are quickly immersed in cool water, you can recover with little permanent damage.
But if you fall onto the ground and just lie there, as Perez did, you are in trouble. It’s like falling into a hot frying pan. Ground temperatures can be 30 F to 40 F above air temperature. As you lie on the hot ground, your heart races, desperate to circulate your blood and find a way to cool off. But the faster your heart beats, the more your metabolism increases, which generates more heat, which causes your heart to beat even faster. It’s a lethal feedback loop: As your internal temperature rises, rather than cranking up your air conditioner, your body fires up your furnace. If you have a weak heart, that might be the end for you.
At a body temperature of 105 F to 106 F, your limbs are convulsed by seizures. From 107 to 109 F, you vomit and your sphincter releases. At 110 to 111 F, your cells themselves literally begin to break down or “denature.” Cell membranes — the thin lipid walls that protect the inner workings of your cells — literally melt. The millions of tiny tubes in your kidneys that filter your blood are cooked. Muscle tissues disintegrate. You develop holes in your intestines, and nasty toxins from your digestive tract flow into your bloodstream. Amid all this chaos, your circulatory system responds by clotting your blood, cutting off blood flow to vital organs. This triggers what doctors call a clotting cascade, which uses up all the clotting proteins in your blood and, paradoxically, leaves you free to bleed elsewhere. There is now blood in your vomit. Your gums bleed. Purple spots appear on your skin – you are hemorrhaging everywhere.
This kind of gruesome heat death is not the kind of thing you imagine happening in Oregon. The Willamette Valley is one of the most fertile, gentle climates in the U.S. — “Oregon’s Garden of Eden,” the region’s boosters call it, often while sipping a glass of the excellent Pinot noir grown there. Back in the 1970s, Steve Jobs had picked apples on a farm not far from here and loved it so much he named a computer company after it.
But in our superheated world, Mother Nature is not playing by the old rules anymore. We live under a sky that is part of a spookily complex system, one that even the best climate scientists, armed with the most sophisticated computer models ever built, are still struggling to understand.
Some manifestations of extreme heat are straightforward. For example, heat exacerbates drought by boosting evaporation and sucking water out of soil. Dried-out soil heats up faster under a hot summer sun, which further intensifies the heat wave, creating a vicious cycle.
Other manifestations of extreme heat are less obvious. The jet stream, for example. For nearly all of human history nobody had any idea there was a river of wind flowing high above the northern hemisphere. Then B-29 pilots during World War II noticed that bombs dropped from a high altitude scattered before hitting the ground. Now scientists know that not only is the jet stream an important mechanism for weather and climate, but that its flow is changing because as the Earth’s temperature rises, it is rising unevenly. The Arctic, for example, is heating up three times faster than the global average. This has slowed the jet stream and allowed it to wiggle and wobble, which causes stagnant summer weather systems.
That is essentially what happened in June, when the jet stream dipped and created a high pressure zone over the Pacific Northwest. The hot air rises, creating more heat, all trapped in the arms of the jet stream. Weathercasters began calling it “a heat dome,” as if they were announcing the sequel to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Still, it’s one thing to predict a historic heat wave; it’s another to live through it. A week before, meteorologists began alerting people to sizzling temperatures that would be arriving soon in Oregon and Washington. Organizers for the United Farm Workers passed out flyers, warning workers to take breaks and drink plenty of water. The Oregon Association of Nurseries (OAN) warned its members that a “historic regional heat wave” was about to hit the area, and prompted growers “to be prepared, so they can keep both workers and plants safe.”
Perez knew heat was coming. The night before he died, he had called both his wife and mother in Guatemala. His mother was concerned. “It’s going to be hot,” she told him. “You have to be careful.” Maria also knew the heat was coming, but says she wasn’t worried. “When it’s hot, Sebastian knows to take a break,” she tells me. “When he was working in the field in Guatemala on a hot day, he would always quit work and come home and cool off. Why wouldn’t he do that in America, too?”
PEREZ GREW UP IN the northern Guatemalan city of Ixcan, on a small farm with his mother and father. The region was still recovering from a bloody decades-long civil war, and life was tough. By the time Perez was in his early 20s, he was making trips to the U.S. to find decent-paying work to help support his family and pay for medical costs for his father, who was ill. When he was 29, his cousin introduced him to a gentle woman with a shy smile named Maria. They fell in love and got married soon after.
Sebastian Perez with his wife, Maria
Courtesy of the Perez family
“I’d go with him into the fields sometimes,” Maria tells me from Guatemala. “We’d hang out together working, so he could finish work faster. Afterwards, when I needed a bath, he would get water for the tub, often making two or three trips to the well to get enough. In the kitchen, when I was cooking, he would help peel the corn. That is how we lived, and we were very happy together.”
Still, Perez knew it would be extremely difficult for them to build a future together working on farms in Ixcan. They shared a house with his family on a tiny plot of land with no running water. Perez wanted his own house, his own family.
Perez’s nephew Pedro Lucas had made the trip to the U.S. a decade earlier. It had been a hard crossing — 16 days in the Chihuahuan desert, where he fell and broke his knee and was eating plant roots to survive — but he made it. Lucas found a good job at a nursery in Oregon, paying $14 an hour. Lucas’s father, brother, and cousin all followed and found work in the Willamette Valley. It was not an easy life, but it was better than the $6 a day you could earn on a farm in Guatemala.
So in April, Perez decided to go. The journey would be impossible without a guide, or coyote. It wasn’t cheap: $12,000, cash only. Perez had no money, so Lucas’ father agreed to put the title for his own house in escrow to secure a loan. It was a lot of money, but Perez was confident he could work hard in the U.S. and pay it off.
When Perez arrived in Oregon, he had few possessions beyond his cellphone, a toothbrush, and the clothes on his back. Lucas set him up in the upstairs bedroom of his house in Gervis, a small community in the heart of the Willamette valley. The room was bare except for a wood-frame twin bed and curtains made of red bed sheets. Within a few days, Perez was working alongside Lucas at Ernst nursery.
Like every undocumented migrant worker, Perez lived in constant fear of being deported. He had just wagered a $12,000 bet that he could come to the U.S. and make something of himself. It was an enormous gamble. At the rate he is paid, it would take five months of work in the fields just to pay off the debt. And if he got caught in an immigration raid and deported, that $12,000 loan was still due.
The financial facts of Perez’s life were merciless: He worked 10 hours a day, at a rate of $14 per hour. No overtime, no paid days off, no coffee and donuts, and for damn sure no health care. After taxes, Perez took home between $2,000 and $2,400 a month (virtually all undocumented workers pay taxes, even though few ever claim Social Security or Medicare benefits later). He paid $500 a month rent for his room at Lucas’ house. Whatever was left over he sent back to his mother or to Maria in Guatemala, or used it to pay off the coyote loan. According to Lucas, Perez had already paid about $3,000 on his loan, which still left him about $9,000 in debt. “His goal was to pay it all off by December,” Lucas says.
Beyond work, Perez’s life was exceedingly simple. According to Maria, he was in good health, and was taking no medications. He played chess and checkers after work with Lucas in the living room, where a Guatemalan flag was tacked to the wall beside a small flea-market-style painting of Mt. Hood. He talked about the house he wanted to build. He talked about how much he missed Maria. He talked about his mom, whom he adored and called every day (his father had died eight years earlier).
“Sebastian was a serious guy,” Lucas tells me. “He didn’t joke around much. He didn’t drink. He didn’t party. He went to church. He mostly talked about his future, and the life he and Maria would have together when he got back to Guatemala.”
Pedro Lucas, Perez’s nephew. “Sebastian was a serious guy,” Lucas says. “He didn’t joke around much. He didn’t drink. He didn’t party. He went to church. He mostly talked about his future, and the life he and Maria would have together when he got back to Guatemala.”
Nathan Howard/AP Images
HEAT IS A FACT of life for the 15 million people in the U.S. who labor outdoors at least part of the day — road crews, construction workers, police officers — as well as for warehouse and factory workers who are trapped in overheated buildings. But it is especially dangerous for farmworkers. A 2015 study found that they are 35 times more likely to die from a heat-related death than other occupations. Recently, a United Farm Workers poll of 2,176 farmworkers in Washington found that 55 percent had experienced at least one symptom associated with a heat illness while at work. A quarter said they did not have enough cool drinking water, and 97 percent said they thought work protections for heat should be improved in the state.
But even among people who are aware of the risks of heat, myths persist. One of the most common is that if you have enough water to drink, you will be fine. Yes, it’s important to drink water when it’s hot so that your blood doesn’t get too thick and you have liquid to sweat. But drinking water won’t save you from a heat stroke. “You can overheat a lot faster than you can dehydrate,” says Sam Cheuvront, a hydration expert who has worked for the U.S. Army Research Institute for Environmental Medicine. In a 2011 study by researchers at the University of Montana, a wildland firefighter who drank a quart of water per hour – far more than most people drink in hot weather — still collapsed of heat exhaustion after seven hours of work in 112 F heat. “The data demonstrate that heat-related incidents can occur even with aggressive fluid intake,” the study concluded.
In addition to the immediate risks of heat exposure such as heat stroke, there can be serious long-term health consequences. In El Salvador and Costa Rica, an epidemic of chronic kidney disease has hit farmworkers who work in hot sugarcane fields — 20,000 workers have died and thousands of others have had to go on kidney dialysis to survive. The disease has been rising among workers in hot climates around the world, including Florida and California. A recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine predicts chronic kidney disease “is likely to be just one of many heat-sensitive illnesses that will be unmasked and accelerated by climate change.”
And when it’s hot, workers make more mistakes and are injured more often. A paper released this summer from researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that even a modest rise in temperature led to 20,000 additional injuries per year in the state, with a social cost of $1 billion.
Incredibly, there are no federal rules related to heat exposure for workers — indoors or out. Even Qatar, a country in the desert where people know a thing or two about heat but that is hardly a bastion of human rights, has national rules to protect workers from heat injury: Workers cannot work outside between 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. from June 1st to September 14th. In addition, all work must stop whenever the temperature in the workplace (inside or outside) rises above 90 F.
But in the U.S., workers are on their own, despite the fact that the need for better protection on the job is obvious. Farmworkers, who are excluded from national laws requiring overtime pay, as well as the right to collective bargaining, are particularly screwed. For decades, farmworker groups and labor activists have been lobbying the Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Agency (OSHA), which is responsible for workplace safety and worker rights, to develop rules for heat exposure. Last March, to push the agency to take action, the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act was introduced in the House and Senate. The main purpose of the legislation, named after a California farmworker who died of heat stroke in 2004 after picking grapes for 10 straight hours in 105 F temperature, is to finally require OSHA to develop heat rules. The legislation has gone nowhere.
State regulations aren’t much better. Prior to this summer, only California and Washington had rules in place for outdoor workers. The California rule, which passed after several farmworkers died of heat exposure in the Central Valley, requires employers to provide enough fresh, cool water nearby so that workers can drink one quart an hour, to encourage workers to take five-minute breaks every hour, and, most importantly, to provide shade whenever the temperature rises above 80 F.
But in Oregon, farmworker advocates had been fighting for heat rules for nearly a decade, and had succeeded only in getting a few weak directives issued from Oregon OSHA. “Whenever we tried to get growers to pay attention to the risks of heat in workers, they always talked about how they couldn’t afford it,” one Oregon organizer tells me. “They said prices are set by retail buyers, and changes in labor costs would make them uncompetitive – which is, of course, complete bullshit.”
Growing things is big business in Oregon. Nursery and greenhouse crops are the state’s second largest industry after cattle, employing about 10,000 people, with sales of more than $1 billion. But the industry justifies its harsh treatment of workers by arguing that it is under competitive pressure from nurseries in states like Florida and Georgia, which are closer to big urban areas and have lower labor costs.
Field laborers work at Ernst Nursery Farms, where Perez was working when he died. Reyna Lopez, executive director of a northwest farmworkers’ union, known by its Spanish-language initials, PCUN, called the death “shameful” and faulted both Oregon OSHA for not adopting emergency rules ahead of the heat wave, and the nursery.
Nathan Howard/AP Images
Ernst Nursery & Farms, where Perez worked, employs 40 to 50 farmworkers, depending on the season, most of them undocumented migrants, according to several workers I spoke with. Like many other nurseries and farms, Ernst has subbed out the task of finding and hiring workers to an independent labor contractor. In effect, independent contractors allow farm and nursery owners to distance themselves from responsibility for who is working on their farm or how they are treated.
It’s not clear how much attention growers even pay to their workers, other than scrutinizing the numbers on their paychecks. Ernst was flagged by Oregon OSHA in 2007 and 2010 for repeatedly failing to post information about pesticides used at the worksite, as well as the locations and contact information of local emergency medical care facilities. In 2014, the nursery was cited for failing to provide water to its workers. Ernst would not comment on their labor policies at the nursery, but the workers I talked to said the nursery was no better or worse than others in the area: a 10-minute break every few hours, a half hour for lunch, a Port-a-Potty out in the field. But no special provisions for water and no tents or other structures for shade. In fact, in my three days of reporting in the Willamette Valley, when temperatures were in the mid-90s, I didn’t see any shade structures for workers in the fields of any of the nurseries or farms I visited.
This system also makes it harder for workers to speak up against unsafe working conditions, since it is often not clear who is in charge, the nursery owner or the contractor. Sometimes, workers are moved around so much that they become disoriented: “We have seen workers who don’t even know where they are, or which farm they are on,” says Reyna Lopez, executive director of Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, a farmworker-rights group in Oregon. When I contacted Ernst nursery to ask them about working conditions on the farm and Perez’s death, the woman I spoke with (she asked that her name not be used) declined to comment on any specifics and would only say “our hearts are broken by what happened.”
In recent weeks, officials in Washington and Oregon finally announced emergency rules for heat with outdoor workers. Oregon’s rules now require 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. This may be an improvement, but it’s still not much more than the bare minimum for survival. Had those rules been in place, would they have saved Perez’s life? It’s impossible to say. It’s one thing to have a rule; it’s another to enforce it. But the simple truth is that nobody should be doing physical labor in an open field when it’s 107 F.
On the federal level, after decades of dithering, OSHA is finally beginning work on federal regulations to protect workers from heat. “It will likely take years to complete,” says Iris Figueroa, an attorney at Farmworker Justice, a non-profit worker’s rights group in Washington, D.C.
“It’s enraging, in a slow and violent way, to think about how heat death is entirely preventable,” says Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for United Farm Workers. “It doesn’t take cutting edge technologies, or expensive machinery. It takes shade and cool water and rest. That is all. The way that this industry has disrespected and refused to provide this to workers is just criminal.”
A WEEK AFTER PEREZ’S death, while his body was still at a funeral home nearby, waiting to be shipped back to Guatemala, I walk up the stairs to the room where he spent his last night on Earth. Nothing there but a bed, a lamp, and a vase of flowers wilting in the heat. Lucas had put Perez’s few possessions into the casket with him.
“Sometimes I think he is still here,” Lucas tells me, standing beside the empty bed. “At night, I hear his footsteps.” He thinks Perez wants to stay because he wants to pay his debt back, and because he wants to take care of Maria and his mother. Lucas, a strong man with hands like eagle talons, turns away and weeps.
The next day, I drive out to Ernst nursery. I check the temperature: 97 F. I pull off to the side of the road and open a gate and walk out onto the field of boxwood and arborvitae where Perez had been working when he died. This was not an accident, or a tragic result of unforeseen circumstances. It was a kind of murder. Scientists have known for decades that burning fossil fuels are heating up the planet, and that more intense heat waves are one of the clearest manifestations of life on a superheated planet. And we’ve known that people like Perez – poor, vulnerable, living outside the air-conditioned bubble of middle-class privilege – will be the ones who suffer first and suffer most. The hard math of the climate crisis, tabulated by fossil fuel companies and the politicians and think tanks that have abetted them, is that people like Perez are expendable. They are one-day media stories and statistics in government reports. But as the world continues to heat up, as it surely will, there will be many more Sebastian Perezs. His death is not a symbol of the climate crisis; it is the climate crisis.
In the field where he fell, the young trees look healthy and green and well-tended. I pull out my phone to take a photo, but I get a warning screen: “iPhone needs to cool down before you can use it.” A few hundred feet away, at the edge of the field beneath a Douglas fir, Perez’s wide-brimmed hat and water jug still sit on the ground. Nearby, someone made a cross with two sticks, marking the spot where he died.
I walk over and pick up his hat – it’s stained with sweat.
Perez’s hat and water jug along with a cross made of sticks marks the spot where he died.
Photo by Jeff Goodell
“He used to call me when he was out in the field sometimes,” Maria told me a few days later. “He’d say, ‘Mari, I’m working hard here, I’m going to come back soon and build us a house.’ That was what he always said. I promised I would wait for him. And now he’s coming home in a box.”