Northwest heat wave: Tragedy strikes immigrant family again

By ANDREW SELSKY and NATHAN HOWARD
Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Ore. (AP) — On his 38th birthday, Sebastian Francisco Perez, an immigrant from Guatemala, played chess with his nephew. The next day, he went to work at a nursery in a rural Oregon town as the thermometer soared well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 Celsius).

Perez collapsed that day, June 26, as a heat wave baked the Pacific Northwest in all-time, record-high temperatures. The workers had been moving irrigation lines when they noticed Perez wasn’t there and found him. They called his nephew, Pedro Lucas, who arrived to find his uncle unconscious and dying.

Paramedics tried to revive him, but Perez didn’t make it. A database of the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division listed his death as heat-related.

Hundreds of people are believed to have died from Friday to Tuesday in the historic heat wave that hit Oregon, Washington state and British Columbia. The death of Perez underscores the dangers that farm workers, most of them immigrants, face as they work under the hot sun, driving rain and snow, often packed in vans to travel to job sites.

In 2019, two of Lucas’ cousins and a third person were killed when a pickup truck slammed into a van near Salem, Oregon, carrying them and 10 other Guatemalans home from work at a Christmas tree farm.

The fact that tragedy has struck Lucas’ family again leaves him in disbelief.

“I don’t understand the things that sometimes happen,” Lucas said in a phone interview in Spanish.

Last time, he used donations to pay a funeral home to have the bodies of his two cousins and the other man returned to Guatemala from Oregon.

Lucas said the family is awaiting an autopsy report on Perez. Lucas said Perez had worked in the heat before and did fine.

Perez had lived in the United States before, and returned about four months ago. He supported his wife, who stayed home in Ixcan, Guatemala, a town near the Mexico border.

“He liked to be in the United States,” Lucas said. “In Guatemala, the economy is not good. There’s a lot of poverty, so you look out for your welfare and your future.”

Reyna Lopez, executive director of a northwest farmworkers’ union, known by its Spanish-language initials, PCUN, called the death “shameful” and faulted both the nursery and Oregon OSHA for not adopting emergency rules ahead of the heat wave.

Spokesman Aaron Corvin said Oregon OSHA is “exploring adopting emergency requirements, and we continue to engage in discussions with labor and employer stakeholders.”

He added that employers are obligated to provide ample water, shade, additional breaks and training about heat hazards.

An executive order issued in March 2020 by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown would formalize protecting workers from heat, but it is coming too late for Perez. Brown’s order focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and also tells the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon OSHA to jointly propose standards to protect workers from excessive heat and wildfire smoke.

They had until June 30 to submit the proposals, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, the two agencies requested the deadline be pushed back to September.

Lucas remembers his uncle’s last night as one of joy as they played games.

“He was happy with me that night,” Lucas said.

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Selsky reported from Salem, Oregon.

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Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky

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