In the summer of 2008, Maria Jimenez traveled to the United States to join her fiancé, Flaurentino Bautista, who was pruning grapes in California’s San Joaquin basin.
The couple planned to work and save hard for three years before returning to Mexico. But on her third day working alongside Flaurentino among the vines, Maria collapsed in 100 degree-plus heat and never recovered.
A coroner at the hospital where she died two days later estimated her core temperature had peaked at 108 degrees. And there was another revelation: Maria was two months pregnant.
The death, which eventually resulted in involuntary manslaughter charges against three officials from a labor-contracting firm, has been highlighted by unions as proof that a 2005 law aimed at protecting California’s farm workers from heat illness didn’t go far enough.
According to the bereaved Bautista, neither he or Maria had been given the mandated safety training, and despite the oppressive conditions that morning they’d only been allowed one water break.
“The reality,” concluded Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers, speaking about the Jimenez case, “is that the machinery of growers is taken better care of than the lives of farm workers.”
According to state watchdog Cal/Osha, conditions are improving. Among other signs, it cites rising participation by farm workers and employers in outreach programs aimed at educating about the risks of heat illness. But there’s one glaring exception: participation rates for the wine industry remain low.
Why? What’s the Californian wine industry doing to protect its workers from heat-related illness and death?
In high summer, parts of California can top 100 degrees — and during this year’s record-breaking heat wave temperatures have soared well above that. When the mercury reaches 95 degrees, legislated heat provisions ought to kick in, including more frequent communication in the field and more constant reminders for workers to drink water and take breaks.
There are other measures required well before things get that hot. Employers, for example, must provide shade in reasonable proximity, and four cups of water an hour for every worker.
But clearly, some employers aren’t taking those responsibilities seriously. Inspections by Cal/Osha last year found 908 violations of the standards — an improvement on the 1163 violations of two years earlier, but still a worry. Failure to maintain a written prevention program and to provide employee training make up the bulk of violations. Yet even something as simple — and essential — as providing water in reasonable proximity is being neglected, with 49 violations in 2011.
Teasing out the wine industry’s culpability is tricky: Cal/Osha doesn’t break down the numbers on violations or statistics such as heat-related illnesses and deaths to that level of specificity. But there have been plenty of reports to suggest vineyard workers are as vulnerable as any.
Teresa Andrews, who leads outreach classes aimed at educating workers and employers about heat dangers, says poor participation by the industry is a concern. An outreach specialist from the University of California’s Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety, Andrews estimates just 10 percent of participants are from the wine industry.
Her suspicion is that because so many of California’s wineries are based in the cooler north, they are more complacent. “But heat can affect you anywhere,” she says.
The classes, in Spanish and English, are attended by employers, supervisors and workers. “We train in the same room so there are no surprises. For employers, it’s about knowing what’s required in terms of shade, water, rests and how to monitor workers’ health. For workers, we look at the standards from the perspective of rights.”
Despite such efforts, many farm workers remain ignorant of their rights when working in heat. “Even when they’re aware of their rights, sometimes they don’t want to stop for water or ask for shade because of the pressure to work. Or they’re afraid they won’t get more work if they’re seen as being weak. And there’s also peer pressure — for some men it might be difficult to even accept they’re feeling sick.”
And as many farm workers are paid piece-rates, there is a strong incentive to work through the heat.
Yet progress is being made. According to William Krycia, senior statewide coordinator for heat illness prevention at Cal/Osha, there is “a fairly decent” level of compliance — in the upper 70 percent range — across all industries.
The wine industry is “in the general ballpark” with other forms of agriculture, he says. “They’re not 100 percent compliant, but we are going to focus on those employers who aren’t.”
The criticism has been made that financial penalties aren’t particularly onerous — a few hundred dollars in some cases. But Krycia points out that Cal/Osha has the ability to shut a workplace down if temperatures exceed 85 degrees and employers fail to provide adequate water, shade and emergency procedures.
Another issue is the question of responsibility when, as is often the case on California’s farms, workers are brought in by a labor contracting firm. “Even though a grower may hire a farm labor contractor, there are times when that grower may still have liability,” says Krycia. But critics argue that too often the grower is able to dodge doing the right thing.
There’s also the complication posed by the demographics of the Californian vineyard workforce, which is both largely Hispanic, and transient, particularly in wine areas such as the central valley (Napa and Sonoma being more residential). The agency has responded by issuing bilingual worksheets in the field, and putting out public service announcements about heat risks on Spanish language radio stations.
For labor advocates such as the United Farm Workers, which has campaigned vigorously on the issue of risks to California’s workers from heat, such measures don’t go far enough. Its hopes are pinned on a bill, the Farm Worker Safety Act of 2012, that if passed would make growers jointly responsible with labor contractors to ensure water and shade are provided.
The legislation would also allow farm workers to sidestep Cal/Osha and take their complaint to their employer — and if necessary, to court.
Whatever the fate of the bill, Teresa Andrews says the key lies with everyone recognizing the seriousness of the issue. The case of Maria Jimenez may have grabbed headlines, but the circumstances weren’t so unusual.
“For change to really happen, it must happen at different levels — not just among workers, but the employers, supervisors, everywhere.”