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October 2008, Volume 14, Number 4

California: Heat Deaths, Drought, Data

There were at least six heat-related deaths among California farm workers in summer 2008, prompting California's Occupational Safety and Health agency to send 17 teams of inspectors to the state's farms. Cal-OSHA sent notices to the 1,400 licensed farm labor contractors in California reminding them of their obligation to train supervisors and workers about heat stress, to have written plans in place to deal with heat-stress emergencies, and to ensure that their workers have access to shade to cool off and sufficient water so that workers can drink at least a quart of cold water an hour.

Cal-OSHA suggested that farm employers follow field sanitation rules on the placement of shade. Toilet facilities and drinking water must be within a five minute walk or a quarter of a mile of workers.

In 2005, 12 workers died from heat stress, prompting California to adopt first-in-the-nation heat-stress regulations that require shade, specific amounts of water and heat-stress training in the workers' native language. In 2006, there were eight workplace deaths linked to heat and in 2007 there was one. Cal-OSHA conducted 1,018 heat inspections in 2007 and found violations of heat-illness regulations at 490 employers.

Merced Farm Labor, the FLC that employed a 17-year old pregnant farm worker who died of heat stroke on May 14, 2008, was ordered to stop doing business for three years in June 2008. Merced was initially allowed to re-open and report on its workers each day; Merced was ordered to cease operations in July 2008 when it failed to comply. Cal-OSHA issued seven citations to Merced totaling $262,700, the largest fine ever issued to a California farm employer.

Employers can appeal these fines, which are often reduced by half or more; the average fine in cases of farm worker deaths between 2005 and 2008 was $9,945. Cal-OSHA says its goal is to induce compliance with heat-stress regulations, not collect fines.

Solis Farm Labor Contractor, which had employees in the same vineyard on May 14, 2008, was fined $77,900 for violations of California's heat-stress regulations. UFW President Arturo Rodriguez complained that "the state does not have the capacity to protect farmworkers ? They are not being protected from the extreme heat they labor under to pick the food we have on our table."

Four of the workers who died of heat stress earned piece rate wages. Ferriss reported that workers picking fresh (mature green) tomatoes near Stockton in August 2008 earned $1.05 for each pair of 25-pound buckets they picked, about two cents a pound. All workers are entitled to two 10-minute rest periods and a lunch break in an eight-hour day; when the temperature exceeds 100 degrees, they are also entitled to an extra five-minute heat recovery break upon request. However, piece-rate workers who earn more than the state's $8 an hour minimum wage often do not take these breaks so that they can earn more money.

Federal investigators sought to shut down G.V. Farm Labor of Orosi after a traffic accident on May 16, 2006 resulted in the deaths of three farm workers and another accident on August 22, 2006 left seven injured. In both cases, the GV workers were employed at Tos Farms of Hanford, and the GV vehicles were deemed unsafe.

The state's Economic and Employment Enforcement Coalition aims to reduce the size of the underground economy by ensuring that employers have worker's compensation insurance. A May 2008 survey of 500 California employers found that 12 percent did not have worker's compensation insurance, reinforcing the sense that some employers avoid what is often their most expensive payroll tax.

In FY2006-07, there were 567 worker's compensation cases filed against employers and 473 against workers. Many employers who carry worker's compensation policies say they are hurt by competitors who undercut them in bidding for jobs, since worker's compensation insurance often adds 10 to 20 percent of wages paid. Some allege that workers who are injured playing soccer on weekends come to work on Monday and say they were injured in order to obtain worker's compensation benefits.

Drought and UI. AB 1107 would have allowed farm workers collecting Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits to earn up to $200 a week without losing UI benefits. Currently, workers can earn up to $25 a week without losing benefits, but AB 1107 would have allowed a worker receiving $250 a week in UI benefits to also earn up to $200. The average UI benefit is $307 a week in 2008; the maximum is $450 a week.

Governor Schwarzenegger declared a drought emergency in nine San Joaquin Valley counties in June 2008. However, Schwarzenegger vetoed AB 1107, saying that the state UI fund could not afford the bill's costs and that the solution to drought-increased unemployment was a "comprehensive water reform package."

The State Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board, which handles about 300,000 appeals of state decisions on unemployment and disability insurance claims annually, was in "turmoil" in summer 2008. Many of the Board's leaders had family members on the payroll, leading to charges of nepotism. The appeals board's executive director was fired after holding the release of some decisions for three days so they fell in the next fiscal year.

Federal guidelines call for 60 percent of cases to be resolved within 30 days. California resolves only six percent of appeals within 30 days, and the appeals board has a backlog of 46,000 cases.

Data. California collects data on payroll employment in agriculture each month, and reports employment and average hourly earnings for wage and salary workers by commodity (www.labormarketinfo.edd.ca.gov/?PAGEID=158).

In 2007, payroll employment in California agriculture peaked at 434,000 in August and reached a low of 307,000 in February, generating a peak-trough ratio of 1.4? monthly employment averaged 382,000. The number of crop production workers hired directly by farm operators peaked at 200,000 in September, reached a low of 136,000 in January, and averaged 176,000? fruits and nuts accounted for half of directly hired crop workers.

An average 175,000 workers were hired indirectly, which means they were brought to farms by labor contractors and other agricultural support services employers. Animal production hired an average 30,000 workers, including 60 percent on dairy farms.

Almost half of average agricultural employment is in the San Joaquin Valley, an average 187,000 in 2007. The peak-trough ratio in the San Joaquin Valley is higher? 222,000 in August and 138,000 in March, for a ratio of 1.6, compared to 1.4 for the state. In the San Joaquin Valley, an average 74,000 workers are brought to farms by labor contractors and 64,000 are hired directly by farmers. Two-thirds of the state's average employment in animal production is in the San Joaquin Valley, including 80 percent of the employment in dairies.

The Central Coast region had an average 59,000 payroll employees in agriculture, with a peak 75,000 in July and a trough 36,000 in January, for a ratio of 2.1. In the Central Coast, almost twice as many workers are hired directly, 31,000, than are brought to farms by labor contractors, 17,000. Almost 40 percent of the workers hired directly are employed on vegetable farms, followed by 33 percent in fruits? mostly strawberries? and 22 percent in greenhouses and nurseries.

Statewide average hourly earnings were $10.24 in 2007, with little variation from month to month. For example, average hourly earnings peaked at $10.50 in December and reached a low of $10.07 in May. The lowest earnings of directly hired workers were in berry crops, where hourly earnings averaged $9.13. Vegetable workers averaged $10.66, the same as greenhouse and nursery workers. Labor contractor employees averaged $9.31 an hour, and dairy workers $11 an hour.

Average hourly earnings in the San Joaquin Valley were lower, an average $9.85 or four percent less than the state average. Workers employed in fruits and nuts averaged $9.81 an hour, those employed in dairies about a dollar an hour more, and employees of contractors $9.20 an hour.

Central Coast earnings were higher, $11 an hour or seven percent more than the state average. Directly hired crop workers averaged $10.87 in the Central Coast, while the region's vegetable workers earned an average $11.53. Central Coast berry workers earned an average $9.68, about the same as the $9.66 an hour earned by contractor employees.

Susan Ferriss, "Dying to work," Sacramento Bee, August 21, 2008. Marc Lifsher, "Workers' compensation enforcers widen focus on employers," Los Angeles Times, August 8, 2008. Patrick McGreevy, "Turmoil rocks jobless benefits agency," Los Angeles Times, July 27, 2008.

 

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