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July 2009, Volume 15, Number 3

California: Heat, Unemployment

Heat. Three operators of Merced Farm Labor were charged with involuntary manslaughter in the May 16, 2008 death of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a 17-year old who died of heat stroke. However, during the May 2009 arraignment, only two showed up in court; one reportedly fled to Mexico.

In June 2008, Merced Farm Labor lost its state labor contactor license. In July 2008, Cal/OSHA assessed fines of $262,700 against the company, the largest-ever state fine of a farm employer. The District Attorney filed civil charges against Merced's owners and West Coast Grape Farming, the vineyard owned by the Franzia brothers (Bronco and Two-Buck Chuck), where Jimenez was working, that could result in fines of $500,000 to $5 million.

Bronco, which says it has 2,000 farm workers in its 40,000 acres of vineyards on a typical day, most of whom are provided by contractors, is underwriting a FLC association that all contractors providing labor to Bronco will have to join. Association members will have to adhere to labor and safety standards.

California adopted heat-safety regulations in 2006 that have four basic requirements. Employers must provide workers employed outdoors with at least one quart of water an hour during the work day, provide access to shade for employees who need to cool down, train employees in heat-illness prevention, and develop a written compliance plan.

There were five heat-stress deaths in 2008, including three farm workers. The state's Occupational Safety and Health Administration in April 2009 reminded farm and nonfarm employers to provide shade for at least a quarter of their employees on days when the temperature is forecast to rise above 85 degrees.

During May 2009 inspections, five southern California FLCs were ordered to cease operations because they did not have the shade and heat-stress prevention plans required by the heat-safety regulations. In July 2009, the state moved to revoke the licenses of FLCs Joel Salazar Farm Labor of Escondido and Valley Pride Inc. of Coachella for failure to abide by heat-stress regulations. The Economic and Employment Enforcement Coalition, a multi-agency state task force that enforces state labor laws, promised continued aggressive enforcement of the heat-safety rules.

In 2008, Cal-OSHA conducted 2,584 inspections and issued 1,134 citations that assessed $3.9 million in fines for heat-safety violations, almost double the heat-related fines in 2007. However, Cal-OSHA collected less than $800,000 of the $3.9 million fines as of April 2009.

On June 18, 2009, Cal-OSHA's standards board refused to adopt emergency amendments to heat-stress regulations proposed by field safety chiefs and endorsed by the Farm Bureau. Farm worker unions opposed the amendments, arguing that they would allow shade to be provided up to five minutes away from a work site and create an exception to shade requirements if farmers could prove that providing shade was not "feasible."

On March 16, 2009, the Tulare County Superior Court granted preliminary approval to a $1.2 million class-action settlement to 650 current and former employees of the Bosman and Meadowlake dairies of Tipton. The settlement resolves claims the employer failed to properly pay wages, provide adequate rest and meal breaks, and habitable housing for its employees.

FLCs. Farmers who use farm labor contractors to obtain workers are required to check with the Department of Industrial Relations to ensure that the FLC they are using is properly licensed. When the farmer enters the FLC's license number, he receives a unique verification number. Fresno-area Hall Ag Enterprises is one of the largest FLCs, issuing 3,000 W-2 statements in a typical year and generating $8 million a year in revenue.

Corona. Juan Corona, a farm labor contractor convicted in 1973 and again in 1982 of 25 first-degree murders, likely had his last parole hearing in June 2009. The now 75-year old was denied parole, and will not have his next parole hearing until 2024. Corona selected men without families in the Marysville area, killed them, and buried them in area peach orchards; he was sentenced to 25 consecutive life terms after an investigation was sparked by a farmer who complained of a hole dug in his orchard.

Unemployment. California farmers reported an ample supply of workers in 2009, with more workers showing up for early harvests of asparagus and cherries in the Stockton area.

California's unemployment rate climbed to 11.5 percent in May 2009, up from 11.2 percent in March 2009. In March 2008, California's unemployment rate was 6.4 percent.

The state lost almost 885,000 payroll jobs between March 2008 and May 2009, reducing payroll employment to 14.5 million. Job losses by sector between March 2008 and March 2009 include construction, down by 150,000 or almost 20 percent; trade, down 170,000 jobs or six percent; and manufacturing, down 100,000 or seven percent. Three sectors-- trade (2.7 million payroll jobs), government (2.5 million), and business services (2.2 million), accounted for half of the state's payroll jobs. Job losses are expected to continue into summer 2009.

About 860,000 of the 2.1 million jobless Californians were receiving UI benefits in April 2009.

Agriculture had 393,000 payroll employees in March 2009, up from 385,000 a year earlier. In 2008, monthly payroll employment in agriculture averaged 391,000, peaking at 403,000 in May and reaching a low of 375,000 in April. In 2005, monthly payroll employment in agriculture averaged 378,000, and in 2000, the average was 407,000.

Farm employment fell 12 percent in Fresno county between 2000 and 2008, reflecting mechanization in raisin grape and other harvesting, and rose eight percent in Monterey county, reflecting expanded strawberry production. In Fresno county, average monthly payroll employment in agriculture was 49,000 in 2008, 46,375 in 2005, and 55,583 in 2000. In Monterey county, average monthly payroll employment in agriculture was 42,600 in 2008, 42,400 in 2005, and 39,100 in 2000.

The separate household survey, which includes the self-employed, gave California a labor force of 18.6 million in March 2009, including 2.1 million unemployed. Unemployment rates ranged from under eight percent in Marin county to over 25 percent in Colusa and Imperial counties. According to this household survey, the unemployment rates in farm worker cities such as Huron, Mendota and Parlier were 35 to 40 percent.

Henning. Jack Henning, head of the California Labor Federation, died in June. He was California's top labor advocate for more than 25 years. Henning was a ally of Cesar Chavez and cited the 1975 passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act as one of his proudest accomplishments.

Nicole C. Brambila, "More demanded from state to stop heat-related deaths," Desert Sun, June 18, 2009. Stephen D. Malm, "Theft of labor is a growing, real problem," Fresno Bee, April 18, 2009. Susan Ferriss, "Worker heat reform falters," Sacramento Bee, June 19, 2009. Robert Rodriguez, "Farm fields are feeling the heat," Fresno Bee, May 30, 2009. Susan Ferriss, "Shade rule kicks in when it's over 85 in California fields," Sacramento Bee, April 19, 2009. Cray, Edward. 1973. Burden of Proof: The Case of Juan Corona. MacMillan.