SAN JOSE, Calif. (KTVU) - A San Jose preschool teaching assistant bought up all the air masks she could find and delivered them to farm workers working outside when the air quality conditions were considered the worst in the world.
Paulina Cortes, 22, posted about her experience, saying that while she handed out dozens of masks, there are "hundreds of people who are working in hazardous environments with no protection. And no one even knows about it."
Her mother had told her that some of her friends were harvesting blueberries in Lodi, Calif., about an hour's drive north of San Jose, without air masks as the smoke from the Camp Fire up north in Butte County blanketed parts of Northern California with thick smoke. The air quality in Lodi at one point on Friday hit 308, considered hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency. The women, her mother told her, had no masks but were covering their faces with damp bandanas.
It was hard to find the N95 masks, Cortes said. Stores in Palo Alto, San Francisco and San Jose were out of them. Finally, she found some bulk boxes of the masks at a Home Depot in Salinas, where she spent her own money on them.
On Friday, she and farm activist Luis Magana of Stockton, began handing out the masks to about 60 workers picking blueberries and grapes at various farms in Central California.
None of the workers had masks, both of them said. Most were not even aware of the unhealthy conditions. Some thought the air was only unhealthy for pregnant women, children and seniors. Cortes said one man, who has an agricultural engineering degree from UC Santa Cruz, said he was told the air wasn't even that bad despite the hazardous ratings. "If a man with a top degree..was misinformed about the severity of the air pollution," she said, "we can't expect these workers at the bottom fof the chain to be informed and aware either."
Cortes and Magana explained to the workers that everyone was affected and that they should protect themselves.
Cortes and other activists have alleged that they were shouted at by some land owners to get off their property, who told them it wasn't safe for them to be there. KTVU could not confirm that without knowing the land owners' names. Cortes and Magana were able to make it on some of the property and hand out the masks anyway.
In one case, however, the farm owner allowed the pair onto his property and was grateful they had masks to hand out because the shelves were bare when he went to get them, Cortes said.
Earlier this month, the United Farm Workers tweeted a video showing non-union celery workers laboring in Oxnard, Calif. without masks after the Woolsey Fire in Ventura County.
Magana said he is contacting Cal-OSHA to see what the government agency is doing to make sure that the farm workers are kept safe. "I think it's time to protect our workers," Magana said.
When contacted by KTVU, Cal-OSHA spokesman Frank Polizzi said that employers in California must take steps to reduce the harmful exposure to wildfire smoke. "Employers should consider how long workers are outside, the level of physical exertion and pre-existing medical conditions," he said in an email.
Some of those steps, he said, include filtering air, reducing the time employees work outdoors, or providing appropriate respiratory protection. Cal-OSHA began issuing wildfire advisories this month, including one on Nov. 14, telling employers where to get masks.
Polizzi said he was looking into whether any complaints had been filed regarding farm workers over the last week.
The air quality should improve Tuesday or Wednesday when it is expected to rain.
IF YOU'RE INTERESTED: To find out more and support Cortes' work, click here.
This story was reported from Oakland, Calif.