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October 2005, Volume 11, Number 4

California: Heat, Pesticides, Health Care

The California Legislature voted in September 2005 to raise the state's minimum wage from $6.75 to $7.25 an hour in July 2006 and to $7.75 in July 2007, after which it would be indexed to rise according to inflation. At the $6.75 an hour rate, a full-time worker earns $13,500 a year, which is below the poverty line for a family of three. About 1.4 million Californians earned less than $7.75 an hour in 2004. The federal minimum wage has been $5.15 an hour since 1997, but 17 states have higher-than-federal minimum wages.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the proposed minimum wage hike, which is expected to lead to an initiative in 2006. Schwarzenegger also vetoed bills that would have increased penalties on employers who delay paying workers' compensation claims or fail to pay the minimum wage or overtime, and vetoed a bill that would have provided unemployment insurance benefits to striking workers who are locked out of their jobs.

Schwarzenegger vetoed about 25 percent of the 961 bills sent to him by the Legislature in 2005, but signed a bill offering an official state apology to Mexicans who were illegally deported or coerced into leaving the United States under a repatriation program in the 1930s.

Yolo county winery R.H. Phillips paid $180,000 in August 2005 to four women who sued in 2004, alleging sexual harassment and discrimination when they were not recalled in 2003. Phillips denied the allegations, and said it settled to avoid protracted litigation. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in September 2005 filed a suit against Central Coast Packing in Salinas, alleging that a female employee was subject to sexual harassment by her supervisor and eventually fired.

A federal court jury in Fresno in January 2005 found Harris Farms guilty of permitting sexual harassment and awarded Olivia Tamayo $994,000; the award was later reduced to $794,000. A federal judge in October 2005 warned Harris Farms not to retaliate against workers who file EEOC charges, noting that John Harris in an email to employees said that Tamayo lacked credibility. The judge ordered Harris Farms to post notices about the January 2005 award and to keep the EEOC informed of employee complaints and their resolution.

A Fresno federal judge awarded $1.7 million to 500 farm workers in October 2005 who filed a class-action suit against Earlimart-based Kovacevich "5" Farms, a table grape grower; the workers' attorneys will receive $795,000. Tulare County-based Kovacevich between 2000 and 2003 required workers to arrive at 6am to place wheelbarrows and picking supplies in vineyard rows, but they were paid only from 6:30am. Under the settlement, Kovacevich cannot reduce its work force in response to the lawsuit, which peaks at around 350, and must supply employees with pruning shears, clippers and gloves.

Heat. Three workers employed by farm labor contactors died from heat exposure in July 2005, prompting Cal-OSHA to issue emergency regulations effective August 22, 2005 requiring employers to provide sufficient drinking water, shaded break areas and supervisor training on the dangers of heat illnesses. The Department of Industrial Relations reported that there were 10 deaths and four heat-suspected illnesses between July 13 to August 4, 2005, including four in agriculture and four in construction.

Cal-OSHA was ordered to develop regulations on heat stress in 1990, but had not acted by July 2005, prompting AB 805, which would have required Cal-OSHA to issue regulations governing outdoor work when the temperature exceeds 95 degrees, including rest periods and shade to protect outdoor workers, sufficient cold water, and five minute breaks if workers feel symptoms of heatstroke. AB 805 was put on hold when the Cal-OSHA rule went into effect.

The emergency regulations do not specify a dangerous outdoor temperature, but do say that outdoor workers must have access to a quart of water an hour, that workers suffering from heat must be provided shaded areas for five-minute rests, and that employers must train supervisors and develop plans for emergency vehicles to reach heat-stressed workers.

Interviews with farm workers emphasized that many feel under pressure to work fast. Most table grapes are picked in teams of two cutters and one packer, with most growers expecting each team to pick and pack 72 to 96 23-pound boxes a day. Most grape pickers earn the minimum wage of $6.75 an hour plus $0.30 to $0.40 a box.

One heat death in 2004 and one in 2005 occurred in Giumarra Vineyards, a company with a peak 4,000 employees who pick and pack table grapes. The United Farm Workers organized several marches to demand higher wages and tables and shade for Giumarra workers.

Pesticides. California's Department of Pesticide Regulation, which oversees the county agriculture commissioners who enforce pesticide laws, is pushing for more fines of violators. In the major farming counties with most violations of pesticide regulations, the result is more often a warning than a fine. For example, between July 1989 and June 2004, there were 2,700 pesticide violations in Fresno county that resulted in 133 fines and 867 warnings.

County agriculture commissioners say they deal flexibly with pesticide violations. A bill in the Legislature, SB 879, would require violators to be fined if there is an "actual health or environmental hazard." A hazard is defined in the bill as failing to comply with laws to protect people, animals and property from contamination; not providing and maintaining decontamination facilities, protective equipment or training; and not communicating potential hazards to pesticide handlers and field workers. Farmers oppose automatic fines.

The March 2004 poisoning of Arturo Becerra is headed to trial in November 2005, California's first criminal prosecution in a pesticide-related matter in 14 years. Becerra was applying methyl bromide, and was told by the ranch manager, his brother, to repair the broken hose and keep applying the pesticide. Becerra's brother and Golden West Nuts are the defendants.

Health Care. Insurers estimate that 160,000 California workers, about one percent, have health insurance that covers care provided only in Mexico, where costs are 40 to 50 percent lower. Premiums for workers in border-area counties are about $100 a month, and employee co-payments are often $5 a visit. California farmers cover about 124,000 workers and their dependents in Mexico, usually Mexican citizens legally employed in the US.

Imperial Valley farmers have been offering Mexican health care coverage to employees since the 1950s, but the trend accelerated after 2000 with cross-border HMOs licensed by the state of California. Blue Shield of California, Health Net and Mexico's SIMNSA covered about 36,000 workers and their dependents in 2005 for 700 employers. Monthly premiums average $100 for individuals and $350 for families in Blue Shield of California's Access Baja plan, compared to $261 for singles and $721 for families whose health care is provided in California.

The plans monitor Mexican doctors and clinics. In Mexico, doctors typically need six years of schooling, compared to eight to 11 years in the US. Mexican doctors generally spend more time with patients.

Workers compensation. The State Compensation Insurance Fund collects about half of California's $15 billion a year in workers compensation insurance premiums. Since recent reforms were introduced, costs have fallen by 40 percent and premiums have dropped by 30 percent, largely because fewer injured workers are receiving payments and some of their payments are lower.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts an annual survey of workplace injuries and reports an incidence rate by industry, which is the number of injuries and illnesses per 100 full-time equivalent workers. In 2003, there were 106 million private sector workers, and the injury incidence rate was five percent, meaning that five of 100 full-time workers had a reportable injury or illness, and 2.6 percent of these incidents resulted in days away from work or job transfers. The highest injury incidence rates- over 12 percent, were for framing contractors, sugar mills and animal slaughtering.

Agriculture had a higher-than-average 6.2 percent rate, with the highest rate in feedlots, 9.3 percent. Several other farming industries had injury rates over eight percent, including pig and poultry farming, postharvest crop activities, and farm management services (FLCs had a rate half as large as management services, perhaps suggesting under-reporting).

Mobility: Farm to Processing. There is general agreement that the children of seasonal farm workers do not follow their parents into the fields, but relatively little is known about what happens to ex-farm workers and their children. Will they remain in the cities in towns in which they now live and form a new rural underclass, will they find better jobs in these towns, or will they migrate elsewhere for jobs?

One place to look at migrant mobility is in the nonfarm food processing industry. During the early 1930s, both field work and cannery work were seasonal, and men employed in the fields for piece rate wages often earned more than women employed in the canneries for hourly wages. However, unionization and unemployment insurance transformed the cannery industry in states such as California in the late 1930s, with cannery workers' earnings approaching those of other manufacturing workers while field worker wages remained stuck at 50 to 60 percent of average manufacturing wages.

Cannery jobs supported worker settlement, and Hispanic communities were soon established around them offering a relative handful of year-round jobs for men and many more seasonal jobs for women. However, as in other US industries, food processing employers in the early 1980s asked for wage reductions, especially for newly hired workers, and some firms refused to agree to follow the industrywide "master contract." There were plant closures and strikes during the 1980s that resulted in many private firms going out of business and wages in many cases being reduced from about $7 an hour in 1984 to $5 an hour by 1986.

Lee Romney, "Pesticide Case Is Upping the Ante," Los Angeles Times, October 10, 2005. Richard Marosi, "Healthcare Is Migrating South of the Border," Los Angeles Times, August 21, 2005. Mark Arax, "Deaths Rally Farm Laborers," Los Angeles Times, July 28, 2005. Segal, William and Peter Philips. 1990. The Effect of Immigration Reform on Collective Bargaining in the California Fruit and Vegetable Processing Industry. Mimeo