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Farmworkers sue state for failing to enforce heat protection laws

July 30, 2009 | 11:36 am

The state has failed to protect farmworkers from heat illness and death, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California charged in a lawsuit filed in state court in Los Angeles this morning. 

“Farmworkers cannot have confidence that when they go to work, they will come home alive at the end of the day,” said Catherine Lhamon, assistant legal director at the ACLU.

The suit, on behalf of five farmworkers, alleges that the state and the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board has violated laborers’ rights by failing to enforce the law that exists and to pass laws that would better protect workers. 

California requires that employers provide water to all employees and access to shade and rest when workers feel ill. The regulations, which took effect in 2005, also mandate training on heat illness.

According to the United Farm Workers, 11 laborers have died of heat-related illness since 2005. United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez said the lawsuit came after months of failed negotiations with the state. 

"It hasn’t been ignorance,” he said. “It has been neglect that has resulted in the deaths of farmworkers.”

Cal-OSHA’s deputy director of communications Dean Fryer said the agency is encountering fewer violations and more compliance. 

“This lawsuit is misguided,” Fryer said in a prepared statement. “California is the first state in the nation to implement a regulation to protect workers from the summer heat and we still have the strongest regulation of the states who have now instituted a heat illness prevention standard. Cal/OSHA has done an effective job of preventing heat illnesses and fatalities.”

One of the plaintiffs, Margarita Alvarez Bautista, who picks citrus in the Coachella Valley, said she wants the state to protect her and her fellow workers. Her mother, Maria de Jesus Bautista, died on Aug. 2, 2008, two weeks after becoming ill while picking grapes in Riverside County in extreme heat.

“I don’t want other families to suffer like my family has,” she said.

-- Anna Gorman