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Stanford workers fight for increased safety measures during wildfire season

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This is the first in a series The Daily is publishing on wildfires and their impact at campus and in the local community.

On any given day, rain or shine, a visitor to Stanford’s perfectly manicured campus can expect to come across not just bicycles and roundabouts but a small army of workers and landscapers. Arguing that their health and needs have been neglected, these workers are looking to better protect themselves during California’s increasingly dangerous wildfire seasons.

While Palo Alto hasn’t faced direct wildfire threats in the past few years, the intensifying blazes have threatened residents throughout the state with poor air quality and smoke inhalation. Facilities workers are especially prone to such health risks, due to the high exposure and strenuous physical activity their jobs require. 

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2007 President Jose Escanuela, who works for and Stanford Land, Building and Real Estate (LBRE), worker was on shift on campus grounds during last year’s Camp Fire. 

“It was hot, the smoke was everywhere, visibility was low,” he recalled. “We started wondering, ‘Hey, you know, what is the University looking out for any of us with any kind of AQI monitoring, to keep an indoor or send us home or something?’”

About halfway through the workday, Escanuela got word that LBRE’s department leaders had decided to send workers home with pay for the rest of the day. He then reached out to other departments that employed Local 2007 members, trying to find out what kinds of protections other facilities workers had been afforded.

“The issue that we had with the University was that there was no institutional response; it was pretty much whatever [the] department wanted to do,” said SEIU Local 2007 representative Francisco Preciado, Jr. Escanuela recalled inconsistent communication from the University to the workers on the health risks of the smoke, and an overall response that he characterized as “reactionary.”

University spokesman E.J. Miranda added that current protocol directs employees to bring health concerns to their supervisors, who are responsible for equipping employees with proper protective equipment including masks and ensuring its proper use. 

“During the most recent incidents of wildfires, the University offered masks to anyone in the campus community at several locations, including Vaden as well as EH&S, DPS, SLAC and Stanford Redwood City,” he wrote in an email to The Daily. 

During last fall’s Camp Fire — the most destructive wildfire in state history, with a death toll of over 85 — the Bay Area Air Quality Management recorded 13 consecutive days of unhealthy air quality. On Nov. 16, 2018, the day that LBRE sent its workers home, the air quality index (AQI) surpassed 200 in much of the Bay Area, reaching levels that qualify as “very unhealthy.”

The sporadic response across departments frustrated Escanuela, who remembers some office workers being sent home, while facilities workers in athletics or dining — whose jobs often require outdoor work — were not. 

“Faculty and administrators have been sent home and their job is primarily inside,” SEIU 2007 leadership wrote in an email to their members during the Camp Fire. “The Union will be pushing for all property, service, and technical workers be afforded that same benefit.”

Although smoke hasn’t been a large problem this year, October’s PG&E power shutoffs posed a whole new challenge for many commuting workers. Escanuela said some union members were commuting from Livermore and East San Jose, areas that had been subject to the preventative shutoffs this past month. 

Escanuela and Preciado both emphasized the need for a concrete, centralized protocol that considers the health risks that natural disasters pose to facilities workers. 

“There’s nothing that has been negotiated with the union in terms of the protocol or process if a natural disaster happens,” Preciado said. “There is no negotiated language that says, anybody who’s outside at this air quality level should be sent home.”

Escanuela hoped that Stanford would model their protocol to that of Santa Clara University’s (SCU), whose facilities workers are also represented by Local 2007. Santa Clara University, according to Escaneloa, has predetermined thresholds for AQI levels, at which workers would be provided equipment, told to cut down on more strenuous work, or sent home with pay, depending on the severity of the index.  

As local AQI levels began to rise again following Sonoma County’s Kincade fire this past October, Escanuela saw a much more efficient response from LBRE. Administrators reached out to facilities workers before the workday began, communicating current AQI status, health risks and best practices to their grounds workers, in addition to securing respirators in advance for workers who needed them. 

Still, Preciado hoped to see more comprehensive practices be implemented on a university-wide level, as the intensifying wildfires pose a recurring threat to the entire campus staff. 

“The n-95 masks may be sufficient for a certain level of air quality, but as soon as it gets worse there needs to be higher level equipment,” he said. “So the ideal for us would be, for the folks who don’t have to be out in the field, that they get sent home with pay or remain inside so they’re not exposed to the air quality, and for the folks that have to be there, they are provided with the equipment they need.”

Stanford’s Wildfire Management Plan contains general information about Stanford’s protocols for dealing with wildfires from health to fire prevention. In a statement Stanford University Fire Marshal Aaron McCarthy said that the University is equipped to handle new and old challenges.

“The Stanford University Fire Marshal’s Office (SUFMO) understands the threat that wildfires pose to our community and remains dedicated to pursuing best practices and implementing new strategies and management technologies to ensure we are strongly positioned to prevent and respond to wildfire,” said McCarthy.

This article has been updated to reflect that service workers were sent home in 2018 with pay, not without pay. A previous caption stated incorrectly that the Camp Fire in Chico affected Southern California. The article has also been updated with the correct spelling of Francisco Preciado’s name. The Daily regrets these errors.

Contact Grace Carroll at gac23 ‘at’ stanford.edu.