UFW bill lets farm workers enforce heat death prevention rules since state hasnít
UFW bill lets farm workers enforce heat death prevention rules since state hasn’t
SACRAMENTO – Since the state of California issued the first heat regulation in the nation to prevent farm workers from dying of extreme heat in 2005, preventable farm worker deaths have continued at about the same pace as before. A lawsuit by Public Counsel and Munger, Tolles, and Olson on behalf of the United Farm Workers and individual farm workers, exposed Cal-OSHA's failure to protect the safety of farm workers.
Since the state hasn’t enforced its heat standards, the UFW is sponsoring AB 2346, the Farm Worker Safety Act by Assemblymember Betsy Butler (D-Los Angeles), so farm workers themselves can enforce mandatory shade and drinking water requirements by taking delinquent employers to court in the tradition of a citizen’s arrest. The measure would also make growers jointly liable with the farm labor contractors they hire if contractors fail to supply farm workers with shade and water when temperatures soar.
"At least 16 farm workers have died since 2005,” UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said. “Since all of these deaths were preventable, it's clear the regulation is not being enforced. Evidence exposed by our lawsuit shows the problem is in fact getting worse."
After the litigation, Bautista v. State of California, filed in 2009, Cal-OSHA said it was boosting enforcement efforts through a focus on inspections of agricultural employers over compliance with the heat standards. The UFW and individual farm workers who have suffered from heat illness are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Yet, as revealed by the lawsuit, Cal-OSHA’s own records from 2009 show the agency failed to issue citations in more than 140 instances in which its inspections determined serious problems existed with employer observance of the heat rules. That year, Cal-OSHA repeatedly withdrew citations and reduced fines, even for violations so egregious that the agency temporarily shut down employer operations.
"Our lawsuit has exposed California's failure to prevent heat illness and death in our fields and outdoor worksites. This bill will give some of the hardest-working Californians a voice to protect themselves so they can go home to their families when the work is done," said Catherine Lhamon, Impact Litigation Director at Public Counsel and counsel on Bautista v. California.
Last summer, the UFW filed more than 75 serious heat illness complaints with Cal-OSHA in the summer of 2011, but the agency issued heat citations in only three of those cases.
“Cal-OSHA has carried out only a small number of inspections,” the UFW’s Rodriguez said. “Many violations didn’t result in any enforcement actions. When there was enforcement, Cal-OSHA often failed to collect fines. Does the state lack the money, staff or will to protect farm workers?” Rodriguez asked. “Are there too many farms to inspect? Is it that state officials just don’t care about workers who are dying from the heat? The answers don’t matter. The simple fact is that the state has failed to protect farm workers. That’s why we need to change the law.”
In addition to letting farm workers take employers to court to enforce shade and water requirements, and making growers directly responsible for violations by their labor contractors, AB 2346 would also set meaningful penalties for individuals responsible for heat-related deaths. However, the bill’s proposed penalties are minimal when contrasted with state Penal Code sections creating misdemeanor or felony punishments for every person who fails to provide any animal with proper food, drink, shelter or protection from the weather.
Finally, AB 2346 does not impose any costs on taxpayers. Also, under AB 2346, 50 percent of civil penalties recovered by workers in civil actions would go to Cal-OSHA for expenses associated with continued enforcement and transparency.