The heat is on

Bill to protect farm workers heads to Gov. Brown

Assemblyman Dan Logue opposes a bill that would make failure to provide farm workers with shade and water a criminal offense.

Assemblyman Dan Logue opposes a bill that would make failure to provide farm workers with shade and water a criminal offense.

Last week, local Assemblyman Dan Logue and fellow California Republicans unsuccessfully rallied to block a new bill intended to help ensure that the state’s agricultural workers are provided shade and cool water.

Under Assembly Bill 2676, dubbed the Humane Treatment for Farm Workers Act, failure to comply with existing regulations guaranteeing regular access to shade and at least one quart of cool water per hour would be made a misdemeanor punishable by up to $10,000 in fines and six months in county jail, with stiffer penalties ($25,000, one year in jail) if the negligence results in injury or death.

The bill passed the Assembly by a 43-28 vote Aug. 30, with Logue and all of his fellow Republicans casting the dissenting votes, and is now waiting to be signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.

During debate over the bill on the Assembly floor, Charles Calderon (D-Whittier), who authored the bill, argued that laws protect the welfare of domestic animals and livestock from extreme heat, and that the legislature should do the same for humans. (According to the California Penal Code Section 597, anyone who fails to provide an animal with proper food, drink, shelter or protection from the weather is subject to a $20,000 fine and one year in prison.)

Logue disagrees, charging the law “criminalizes” farmers and threatens the agricultural industry.

“There are attorneys throughout the state jumping up and down in excitement for this bill,” Logue said in a press release. “This action unleashes the hounds on hard-working farmers; many of them sincerely care about their workers and treat them like family.”

Logue has repeatedly criticized state government regulations, saying such interference has caused businesses to flee California in recent years for more accommodating states like Texas.

“Those that vote for this should be the ones fined $10,000 for letting this bill get off the floor,” Logue added. “Agriculture is the last industry in California truly creating wealth anymore, and this bill seeks to destroy that way of life.”

Protection from heat became a focal point for labor activists in 2005 when record-high temperatures resulted in the deaths of 12 farm workers. Emergency regulations requiring employers to provide adequate shade, cool water and education about the dangers of heat were enacted by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health that year, made permanent in 2006, and have since been adopted nationwide. The regulations are currently enforced with civil penalties.

Farm worker fatalities have apparently lessened—there are four cases from this year awaiting final medical determination—but many of those in favor of the bill say they think farm owners are still shirking the regulations.

According to statistics provided by the United Farm Workers union, 400,000 workers provide 90 percent of the labor on California’s 35,000 farms. California’s multibillion-dollar agricultural industry is the nation’s largest. The UFW has campaigned for protection-from-heat laws and regulations since the 2004 death of a worker at Bakersfield’s Giumarra Vineyards, the largest table grape grower in the country.

Another death noted by the UFW, and brought up on the Assembly floor by Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville), is that of Maria Isabel Jimenez, a 17-year-old undocumented farm worker who died in May 2008 near Lodi.

Jimenez collapsed after pruning grapes for nine hours in temperatures above 95 degrees. According to reports from those who worked alongside her, she was denied water breaks by the foreman on site, and the nearest water cooler was a 10-minute walk away.

After she collapsed, supervisors at the contractor she worked for, Merced Farm Labor, allegedly didn’t call 911 and delayed medical assistance. She was in a coma and had a fever of 108 when she arrived at the hospital, and died two days later. Doctors discovered she was two months pregnant at the time of her death. Jimenez’s supervisor was charged with manslaughter, and received community service.

AB 2676 comes on the heels of a related bill that passed the Assembly the day before, Assembly Bill 2346, The Farm Worker Safety Act. That bill also addresses heat issues and education, and allows employees to sue employers who don’t comply. AB 2346 passed 42-33.

Yet a third workers’-rights bill was sent to Gov. Brown’s desk Aug. 30. If signed into law, Assembly Bill 889 would give domestic workers, such as housekeepers and nannies, overtime pay, rest periods and other state labor protections. The 42-27 vote on that bill also followed party lines, with all voting Republicans opposed to the law.