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July 2002, Volume 8, Number 3

California: Farm Workers

Victoria Island Farms, owner of the property on which six migrant labor camps with "deplorable conditions" were found in San Joaquin County in 2000, agreed to pay $542,969 in September 2001 to settle a lawsuit filed by California Rural Legal Assistance on behalf of some of the workers who lived in the camps. Some 1,200 Victoria Island employees who worked in the asparagus fields from 1997 through 2000 may file claims.


However, as of April 2002, about two-thirds of the back-wage funds, some $350,000, had not been claimed. Victoria Island spent more than $172,000 to improve the camps, and issued a statement which said: "the settlement reflects the parties' full faith that the high quality asparagus produced by Victoria Island Farms is produced under the best conditions in the industry by workers who are properly paid and housed in accordance with the law."


There will be a trial on a separate suit against JB Farm Labor Contracting in October 2002. Jose Bautista and Otilio Bautista operated the camps, which are located near Victoria Island Bridge off Highway 4 west of Stockton.


Sunmet. Sunmet, owned by Merjan Financial Corp, was a 10,000-acre operation in the San Joaquin Valley that produced $40 million a year worth of almonds, grapes, apples, peaches and plums with 470 full-time and 4,000 seasonal workers. William J. Barkett of La Jolla bought the land from the MetLife insurance company with an $85 million loan from Credit Suisse in December 1997.


In June 1999, Credit Suisse filed a foreclosure suit against Barkett and began to operate the farm; it has since sold the land. Barkett countersued, alleging that Credit Suisse set him up to fail, and wanted to reacquire the land. The bankruptcy receiver did not pay creditors, including farm labor contractor Ruben Beas Agricultural Services of Madera, who was owed $500,000, so Beas went bankrupt without paying 340 farm workers the wages they were owed, an average $335.


The bankruptcy court in April 2002 released $114,000 of the $189,000 owed to Beas so that Beas workers could be paid. However, many of the workers could no longer be found, and the remaining $75,000, if the workers do not claim it, will go to the IRS and EDD. A series of newspaper stories on the Sunmet case, "Dirt Cheap" by Sacramento Bee reporter Andy Furillo in May 2001, won the Harry Chapin Media Award: http://www.sacbee.com/static/archive/news/projects/workers/


Hand Weeding. The short-handled hoe, which is two-to-three feet long, so that workers were forced to bend over, was banned in 1975, based on medical evidence that it caused degeneration of the spine, back injury and potentially permanent disability.


In July 2002, farm worker organizations petitioned Cal-OSHA to amend the General Industry Safety Orders 3456, Hand-Held Tools, to extend the ban on the short-handled hoe to hand weeding- some employers have reportedly ordered workers to weed by hand, which also requires bending. The revision would specifically prohibit use of tools that require or result in a worker "stooping, kneeling or squatting." Violation of the standard could result in a penalty of $500 per employee, for each violation.


A long-handled tool would be defined as a tool that is at least four feet long and able to be used by the worker without stooping, kneeling or squatting. The petition allows an exemption for crops grown under continuous plastic mulch or woven cloth sheets if the use of a long-handled tool is not possible. In such cases, employers would be required to provide workers with protective clothing and equipment such as knee pads.


Transportation. The Agricultural Industries Transportation Services program was launched in Kings county in April 2002, with the goal of eventually allowing 100,000 farm workers to ride to and from work in worker-driven vans that have been certified as safe by the California Highway Patrol. Using federal and state grants, 48 15-passenger vans and four 28-seat buses were purchased.


Under the AITS program, drivers lease the vans for $750 a month, and then collect $60 to $70 a month from fellow workers for rides to work; the grant pays the cost of fuel and maintenance. Drivers can use their vans only for work.


Labor Law Enforcement. The California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) was established in 1927; it now enforces workplace safety and health laws for more than 14 million California workers and 1.3 million employers. On July 1, 2002, DIR established a new license verification unit to help agricultural growers verify the status of the farm labor contractors who bring workers to their farms.


Growers can go to http://www.FLCLicensingVerification@hq.dir.ca.gov and send an email with the information on the FLC they plan to use to get workers, and save the response they receive within 24 hours to demonstrate compliance. DIR says: "There is no longer any reason for unlicensed farm labor contractors to be hired and for agriculture workers to run the risk of not being paid." Farm employers who do not verify the status of their FLCs may be liable for unpaid wages and fines.


In San Diego county, a group of eight teenagers who attacked five Mexican farm workers in their 60s on July 5, 2000 were sentenced in June 2002 to terms ranging from four months in a youth detention camp to at least three months in adult prisons. The case involved Proposition 21, a 2000 state law that allows prosecutors to try juveniles as adults for violent offenses without a judge's approval.


The legal farm workers who were beaten sued the families of the teens and received $1.4 million in a settlement.


Workers Compensation. If a worker is injured on the job, the employer's worker's compensation pays for medical treatment and partially replaces lost wages. Workers compensation is typically the most expensive mandatory payroll tax for employers, costing many farmers 10 to 20 percent of the wages that are paid because, for instance, workers who climb ladders or work with livestock suffer frequent injuries.


California employers pay about $11 billion a year in worker's compensation premiums, equivalent to $1.49 per $100 in wages paid; the total costs of benefits paid was about $9 billion. California employees file about one million claims for worker's compensation benefits a year, and they receive some of the lowest worker's compensation benefits in the US. However, many California employers assert many of the worker claims filed are fraudulent. The state says that many employers also commit fraud by underreporting their payrolls, or by misclassifying workers into lower rate classes.


Goleta National Bank in Santa Barbara has introduced an ATM debit card for farmers to pay workers that has no fees or check cashing charges.


Ben Fox, "Teens sentenced for attack on Mexican workers in San Diego," AP, June 28, 2002. "Van leasing Program Targets Farm Workers," Los Angeles Times, April 25, 2002. Kerri Ginis, "Nation's First -- Program lets farm laborers lease vehicles to transport others," Fresno Bee, April 24, 2002. Andy Furillo, "$114,000 payday awaits farm workers left in lurch by bankruptcy," Sacramento Bee, April 15, 2002. "$350,000 from farmworker settlement remains unclaimed," AP, April 3, 2002.


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