By ELIZABETH BLOOMBERG
In response to several California farmers’ deaths and illnesses due to heat exhaustion, the Farm Worker Safety Act, a bill aiming to provide workers with adequate water and shade, will be introduced to the Senate on Monday, August 27th. The bill would require planters to allow their employees to take frequent water breaks, as well as make sure there is adequate shade in the area. Employers who fail to meet these requirements would be heavily fined.
Existing laws already supposedly provide for this, but there is hardly any way to enforce them. In 2005, California issued heat illness regulations following the death of a farm worker at Giumarra Vineyards, the largest table grape grower in the country. Since their implementation, at least 16 heat-related deaths have occurred, just as many as before the rules were put in place.
The reason for this is that it is extremely easy for growers to circumvent the current laws. According to online news source The Grist, workers are allowed to file complaints with the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA) if they aren’t provided with enough water or shade. These complaints are supposed to prompt an inspection of the fields within three days. However, with only 200 inspectors serving 35,000 farms, the inspections often never happen at all. Moreover, fines levied against growers found violating the law are often diminished or dismissed entirely.
Of the farms actually inspected, Cal/OSHA reports that at least a third are not in compliance with the heat illness regulation. According to Giev Kashkooli, strategic campaigns director for the Farm Workers’ Union, at least 140,000 farmworkers lack basic shade or water every workday. This can, in some cases, lead to illness or even death.
One such case is that of Maria Isabel Jimenez, a pregnant seventeen-year-old who collapsed from heat exhaustion in 2008. She had been working in the fields for nine hours without access to water or shade. When she lost consciousness, her farm labor contractor, the person in charge of overseeing the field workers, delayed calling 911 until it was too late. When Jimenez was finally taken to the hospital, she had a body temperature of 108.4 degrees. She died within two days.
More recently, Maximo Lopez Barajas, a 56-year-old orchard worker, died on June 1st of this year while pruning pomegranate trees in Fresno. According to the Fresno Bee, the temperature was well over a hundred degrees.
“It’s terrible,” said Nile Seabrooks, a Cleveland junior. “The farmers need to be provided with more satisfactory working conditions.”
The Farm Worker Safety Act, introduced in the Californiaassembly by Democratic assemblywoman Betsy Butler, would make the consequences for violating the law much more severe. The bill would hold planters and labor contractors jointly liable if proper shade and water aren’t provided. Offenders would be fined a minimum of $750 for each violation. This would prevent labor contractors, who before suffered less liability than planters, from ignoring the needs of their workers.
In addition, employers caught violating the law would be required to fill out a field sanitation compliance form, listing the number of employees, toilets, and washing and drinking water facilities available, for five years following the citation.
It would also provide farm workers with the ability to take their employers directly to court if Cal/OSHA does not respond to their complaints. This allows them to go around Cal/OSHA, which before was the highest authority they could access.
According to The Grist, Kashkooli said the proposed law would “deliver fair consequences for the employers who choose to put farmworker lives at risk by not providing water and shade.”
The bill is not without its critics. According to the Huffington Post, Republican assemblyman Bill Berryhill said, “AB 2346 would warp the state’s heat illness regulations in ways that no farmer can implement.”
Students who would like to influence the outcome of this legislation can contact their local legislators: Fran Pavley at (310)314-5214, Carol Liu at (818) 409-0400, and Alex Padilla at (818) 901-5588.