Farm workers are exposed to harsh working conditions, more so during the hot summer months. 15 farm workers have died since 2004 due to heat related illness only because the laws on the books are not the laws in the fields.
Summer in California hasn’t even started and we just got word that it happened again. According to Tuesday’sFresno Bee newspaper, Maximo Lopez Barajas died Friday while pruning in a pomegranate orchard. The Bee said Maximo "collapsed in heat that exceeded 100 degrees that day." Erika Monterroza, spokeswoman for the state Department of Industrial Relations, said emergency crews were called and the man was taken to Coalinga Regional Medical Center, where he died. We are awaiting the coroner’s report.
Reports show that since California issued its emergency 2005 regulations to keep farm workers from dying of extreme heat, preventable farm worker deaths still occur at a similar pace as before. Not only that, but when Cal-OSHA, the state work safety agency, finds violations of its regulations, reports shows the state often does not issue citations, go back to recheck violators and make sure the violations have been corrected.
This cannot continue. Because the state has failed to adequately enforce its heat standards, the UFW is sponsoring AB 2346, the Farm Worker Safety Act by Assemblymember Betsy Butler. This bill will let farm workers enforce mandatory shade and drinking water requirements by taking delinquent employers to court. It will also make growers jointly responsible with farm labor contractors they hire to ensure that farm workers on their properties are given shade and water when temperatures soar. In addition, AB 2346 will set meaningful penalties for employers responsible for heat-related deaths. The bill’s proposed penalties are minimal when compared with those in the state Penal Code for the failure to provide animals with the same protections. AB 2346 does not impose any costs on taxpayers. Perfectly sensible restrictions, right?
Of course, growers and their allies strongly oppose this bill, claiming it has "impossible requirements." An article in last Friday’s Western Farm Press included this comment from Stockton Republican Assemblymember Bill Berryhill, who is also a wine grape grower: “AB 2346 would warp the state’s heat illness regulations in ways that no farmer can implement.” Does providing water and shade guaranteed by the law sound like something that "no farmer can implement"?
The growers condemn the bill for establishing what the critics call "crippling fines” for violations. Crippling penalties? If employers comply with the law, there are no penalties. Penalties can be imposed only for violations—like the failures to provide shade and water that have led to farm worker deaths. Remember 17 year-old Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez who died in 2008 from heat illness? In 2006, the same labor contractor for whom Maria Isavel worked was fined for failure to have a written heat stress prevention plan and heat stress training for workers as required by law. Cal-OSHA did not collect the fines or revisit the fields until after Maria Isavel died. Maria Isavel’s case was the first time an employer was even taken to court. Still, despite blatant violations of the heat rules and after the farm labor contractor responsible for Maria Isavel’s death was charged with involuntary manslaughter, the contractor got away with only fines and community service. Fifteen other victims’ families did not even get a day in court. What is so crippling about allowing farm workers to sue growers for not obeying the law and putting their lives in danger?
We can’t let farm workers keep on dying. AB 2346 just passed the California state Assembly. It will be heard next in the Senate Labor Committee. Please e-mail the chair of this committee — Senator Ted W. Lieu — and if you live in California, your state senator—TODAY and tell them to support this crucial bill. Farm workers cannot keep having their lives jeopardized because of grower indifference.
Sign my petition and call your California State Legislator in support of AB2346.