Deaths In The Fields: Why State Agencies Need Help Protecting America's Workers
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It's hard to find a tougher job in America than harvesting in the fields. Throughout California, known as the nation's salad bowl, farmworkers, frequently migrants with little knowledge of their rights as workers or even the English language, toil in triple-digit heat, often without shade or water breaks. Needless to say, this dangerous work has resulted in serious injury and even deaths.
Jose Rosario Valencia started feeling nauseated just after 9 a.m. on July 17. His heart rate sped up and his knees buckled.
Valencia was scared. He'd heard of other farmworkers dying of heat stroke in the fields.
"I thought about my family and how they would suffer," said Valencia, 46, who moves irrigation pipes in the onion fields.
Even though California passed a groundbreaking law in 2005 to protect farmworkers from heat illness and death, there have been as many as 10 heat-related fatalities in the years since. Among the victims in 2008 were a pregnant teenager who died when her body temperature climbed to 108 degrees after working in a Lodi vineyard and a 37-year-old man who suffered heat stroke after loading table grapes near Bakersfield. The state has confirmed heat as the cause of six of the deaths and said it may have been a factor in the others.
Farmworkers get paid by the piece, based on how much they load, and their employers set quotas that they are expected to cover. They have every incentive to avoid breaks and work as hard as possible; in some cases, the water is simply out there for display. As a result, farmworkers skip bathroom breaks. They skip water breaks. They stay out in the fields under 100-degree heat with the fear that they would be fired if they did not. And as a result, workers die.
The most celebrated case in recent years was that of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a 17 year-old farmworker who died of heat strike in the fields in the summer of 2008. She was pregnant at the time.
Maria collapsed while working for Merced Farm Labor in a vineyard owned by West Coast Grape Farming outside of Stockton, CA. Maria worked for nine hours in temperatures that reached 101 degrees. There was no water nearby. There was no shade.
After about 2 hours of delays, Maria was finally taken to a clinic. Her temperature upon arrival was 108.4 degrees. Maria's heart stopped six times in the next two days before she passed away. Doctors said if emergency medical help had been summoned or she had been taken to the hospital sooner, she might have survived.
In 2009, Cal-OSHA, the state occupational safety board, delivered regulations to combat heat-stress related injuries and deaths. The employers first tried to amend the regulations, trying to classify the vines in the vineyard as "shade." But they failed, as Cal-OSHA refused to rewrite the laws.
However, lobbying for changes in the law is only one way that employers evade oversight. Under the Schwarzenegger Administration and during the historic budget crisis in the state, funding for Cal-OSHA has shrunk. Only two HUNDRED inspectors monitor all the worksites in the nation's most populous state, including the 35,000 farms. There are more fish and game wardens in California than worksite inspectors.
And if an employer is cited, they can use a favorable appeals process to reduce the fines or dismiss the violations, something which has been done repeatedly in recent years. All violations can be appealed to a judge, appointed by the appeals board. Then the appeals board can vacate the judge's ruling. This offers many opportunities to game the system.
The head of the state Senate's Labor Committee accused a workplace safety board Wednesday of being biased toward employers and ignoring a law that requires fines for failing to report on-the-job injuries.
After a hearing, Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) said he might introduce legislation that could lead to criminal charges against board members if they continue to disregard the law that calls for a $5,000 fine for employers' failing to report accidents in a timely manner.
The hearing came after a Times investigation last fall that found that the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health appeals board repeatedly dismissed and reduced the penalties levied by division inspectors, even in situations in which workers had died or were seriously injured.
One recent case was dismissed based on a spelling typo in one document. And this is more about ideology than budget problems: for example, Cal-OSHA received stimulus money to hire more inspectors, but has so far declined to do so.
Despite all of these obstacles, the new emphasis on worker safety by Cal-OSHA in the last growing season did pay some dividends. Last year, more vigorous training and enforcement efforts did serve to reduce heat-related illnesses and deaths. But already Cal-OSHA is talking about backing off, content that the media storm over the plight of the farmworkers has largely ended.
Rising compliance and awareness, Welsh said, may allow his agency to relax its inspection efforts in 2010.
"The 3,400 inspections we did last year was a little more than we can sustain," he said.
This is why we need HR 2067, the Protecting America's Workers Act (PAWA). A fully resourced OSHA could fill in the gaps where the state-level agencies often fail. They could deliver larger penalties without the byzantine appeals process at agencies like Cal-OSHA. They could provide the ability for families to seek justice from employers through the courts. Simply put they could restore the promise of a safe and health workplace for everybody in America.
Even in the fields.