Low-Wage, Immigrant Workers Are Still Showing Up for Work in Wealthy LA Neighborhoods Affected by Getty Fire

Getty Fire
Ana Martinez walks through a neighborhood that was evacuated in the Getty fire on Monday.(Brittny Mejia)

Wildfires are indiscriminate in their destruction, but the fires actively burning in northern and southern parts of California, present unique challenges to the immigrant Latino community whose access to vital information and resources is limited by language barriers, immigration status, and socioeconomic status. A piece published this week by Los Angeles Times writer Brittny Mejia illustrated a sharp divide between the elite and working-class Los Angelenos who live and work near where the Getty Fire is currently burning, with wealth or lack of it being a critical factor in who is bearing the negative health effects — as well as the immediate economic consequences — of the fire.

Wealthy residents evacuated from their homes earlier this week, including high profile ones like LeBron James. Man these LA [fires] arent no joke,” he tweeted on Monday.Had to emergency evacuate my house and Ive been driving around with my family trying to get rooms. No luck so far!”

But despite the exodus of its residents, Mejia found that some of the housekeepers and gardeners who work in the very same neighborhoods were still trying to complete their hired tasks. She ran into several immigrants, hailing from Central America, who spoke little to no English and were unaware that their employers’ neighborhoods were in close proximity to brush fires. Several of them were not informed by their employers that they shouldn’t report for work that day. “They didn’t tell us,” said one of the housekeepers. “They need to tell us not to come.”

Beyond clearly not having adequate access to emergency information about the fires, the low-wage employees were concerned that they would be missing out on the opportunity to work. Some of them were intent on working, even with the knowledge that the neighborhood had been evacuated. A local police officer told Mejia that he had tried to convince some of them that they needed to leave the area, a direction that a few had resisted. “I saw their determination to finish the job,” he explained. The wildfires are forcing many of these employees to choose between making the money they need to survive and their own health and safety.

Aside from putting themselves within the reach of the fires themselves, people who suffer from lung conditions like asthma or COPD can experience serious health complications from even limited exposure to smoke — and it’s not a stretch to recognize that this directly impacts the type of workers who were interviewed for the piece in the Times. The Latino community is already more likely to have untreated respiratory conditions that make them vulnerable to fine particulate matter; housekeepers and landscapers face an even greater health risk. One report from 2018 found that housekeepers who used common cleaning products over a 20-year period had lungs as bad as someone who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day. Fair Warningpublished a report a few years ago highlighting the fact that a landscaper operating a leaf blower can be exposed to 40 to 50 times more fine particulate matter than if they had been breathing in dirty air at a busy, rush-hour intersection.