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April 2009, Volume 15, Number 2

California: Unemployment, Heat

Some 650 dairy workers in Tulare county reached a $1.3 million settlement of a class-action suit in March 2009 alleging that they were not compensated for overtime work and were provided with substandard housing (Bravo, et al. v Bosman Dairy, et al). Under the settlement, all people who worked as milkers and pushers at Bosman, and workers housed at the dairy from October 5, 2003, to February 15, 2009, will be eligible to receive payments.

California's unemployment rate was above 10 percent for the first three months of 2009, two points above the US rate, as payroll employment shrank by almost 3,000 a day to less than 14.5 million in February 2009. Of the two million unemployed workers in the state, half were laid off, but only 800,000 were receiving UI benefits.

Unemployed workers get a maximum 59 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits that range from $65 to $475 a week. AB 23-3X, signed into law in March 2009, extends the maximum period of UI benefits to 79 weeks. Co-author Assemblyman Juan Arambula (D-Fresno) said "We need these people to stay in place, so when the economy begins to pick up, there will be an available workforce for agriculture and other industries."

Unemployment rates in February 2009 varied from a low of five percent in Marin county to a high of over 25 percent in several farming counties. Unemployment rates exceeded 15 percent in the major farming counties of the San Joaquin Valley, and expectations were that rates would rise because reduced water deliveries would shrink farm worker employment.

California's employed workers are concentrated in six sectors: trade and transportation, 2.8 million; government, 2.5 million; business services, 2.3 million; education and health services, 1.7 million; leisure and hospitality, 1.5 million; and manufacturing, 1.4 million.

California's unemployment rate was three points higher than the US rate in the early 1970s, fell below the US rate during the early 1980s recession and again in the late 1980s, was significantly higher than the US rate during the early 1990s recession, and was slightly above the US rate in 2005-06. California's unemployment rate peaked at 11 percent in February 1983.

Rising unemployment has increased the supply of farm workers. Imperial Valley farmer Jon Vessey said that "We have had no trouble getting workers for the winter vegetable harvest. There is a bigger supply of labor this year than last year or the year before." In 2006, Vessey said that he received one worker from a request for 300 submitted to EDD.

Heat. Cal-OSHA reported at least three of the six deaths in 2008 in California workplaces attributed to heat stress involved farm workers (it is often hard to determine the cause of death, and some reports say four of seven heat-related workplace deaths involved farm workers). Another 16 farm workers suffered serious health problems as a result of health stress, 43 percent of the 37 serious heat-related workplace injuries in 2008.

Cal-OHSA inspectors issued 1,122 citations for violations of the state's heat-illness regulation in 2008, almost double the number issued in 2007, and assessed $1.8 million in fines.

Cal-OHSA launched its summer 2009 heat-awareness campaign in mid-March, aiming to educate 4,000 farmers who employ 100,000 workers and 1,000 contractors who employ 300,000 workers about the state's heat-illness prevention regulations. The state's four-pronged heat-stress avoidance program includes encouraging workers to drink plenty of cool water, providing access to shade, training workers and supervisors about heat stress, and having written procedures to avoid and deal with heat stress.

SB 577 would exempt farms with annual sales of $10,000 or less from obtaining workers compensation insurance, a bid to help 600 small southeast Asian farmers in the Fresno area, many of whom work on each other's farms as needed. The bill prohibits qualified small farmers from obtaining workers via labor contractors and requires small farmers to have health insurance for their family members.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigned in 2003 to reduce steadily rising workers compensation costs. A 2004 package of laws reduced workers compensation costs by an estimated $40 billion over six years for employers. However, the Workers' Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau in March 2009 recommended a 24 percent increase in WC premiums.

Discrimination. The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing ordered Terra Linda Farms of Fresno to pay $111,000 to two women who complained they were not rehired after filing a sexual harassment complaint. In 2005, a co-worker followed one of the women home, prompting her to obtain a temporary restraining order that was served on the co-worker by the second woman, a supervisor.

In 2006, Terra Linda refused to rehire the women, who had 10 years experience with Terra Linda. The citation includes $90,000 for emotional suffering.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal anti-discrimination laws, received a record 95,000 private-sector discrimination charges in FY08, up from 80,000 in FY00. However, its staff fell from 2,800 to 2,200 in this period, and the backlog of cases awaiting investigation and resolution rose from 34,000 to 74,000.

A Triqui farm worker in Monterey county was arrested for seeking a $16,000 dowry to allow his 14-year old daughter to marry an 18-year old; the man complained to police when the groom did not make the payment. The Triqui in rural Oaxaca sometimes ignore Mexico's minimum age of 16 to marry, and are rarely prosecuted in their isolated rural communities. Many Triqui do not speak English or Spanish.

Pears. In 2006, the New York Times highlighted farm labor shortages by focusing on pears that went unpicked in Lake county, which is north of Napa county. Lake county's pear acreage peaked at 8,000 acres in 1976, and has shrunk to 2,000 acres today.

The county government hired a consultant to study alternative uses of the remaining pear sheds, most of which are being offered to new and expanding wineries. Pear grower Phil Murphy complained that many of the pear-shed owners were wealthy, and tax dollars should not be used to help them to convert their facilities.

Elizabeth Larson, "Study looks at uses for county's pear sheds," Lake County News, March 25, 2009. Jerry Hirsch, "Farms see big crop of workers," Los Angeles Times, February 10, 2009. Julia Preston, "Pickers Are Few, and Growers Blame Congress," New York Times, September 22, 2006.


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