California lawmakers are slamming the state’s workplace safety agency for “dangerous” conditions for farmworkers


California lawmakers are slamming the state’s workplace safety agency for “dangerous” conditions for farm workers

California Politics

Mackenzie Mays

February 8, 2024

California Democrats on Wednesday criticized the state’s workplace safety agency after hearing testimony from farmworkers who said they have been exposed to extreme heat and pesticides on the job and suffered wage theft and other labor law violations.

At an Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment hearing, farmworkers and their advocates testified that the state has repeatedly failed to enforce workplace protection laws.

The allegations come as the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, struggles with a 38% vacancy rate. That understaffing has increased compliance with workplace safety regulations in a high-risk industry where fear of retaliation or deportation already deters low-wage workers from filing complaints for workplace violations, speakers said Wednesday.

“I have heard over and over again that the laws in this area are not the laws that we are passing here at our statewide level,” Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno) said Wednesday. “We know the implementation is not working for our communities.”

A Cal/OSHA representative told lawmakers Wednesday that a new “agriculture enforcement unit” is being formed that will prioritize recruiting workers focused on farm work.

Committee Chairwoman Liz Ortega (D-San Leandro) said after the hearing that she was unhappy with the state agency’s response and is calling for an audit of Cal/OSHA.

Ortega called what is happening on some state farms “dangerous and illegal” and refused on Wednesday to accept funding problems as a reason for inadequate compliance with workplace safety. the time when many complaints from agricultural workers surfaced.

“To say I am furious is an understatement,” Ortega said Wednesday. ‘I don’t want to hear any more excuses. It’s excuse after excuse, year after year.’

A potential audit could be facilitated through legislation or through a joint committee in the Legislature, which votes on issues deemed worthy of investigation. Other lawmakers including Arambula and Senator Dave. Cortese (D-San Jose) said they would support such an audit.


Lee, head of Cal/OSHA, said Wednesday she was “very concerned” by the testimonies. Under the agency’s new agricultural enforcement unit, an anonymous complaint hotline for farmworkers will be established and offices will be expanded in agriculturally rich places such as the San Joaquin Valley, she said.

“Our mission is the safety and health of workers,” Lee said during Wednesday’s hearing. “

The lives and livelihoods of workers depend on our ability to collectively prevent injury and illness.”

Agricultural work is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States, and the effects of climate change are exposing outdoor workers to life-threatening heat more than ever.

California has laws

in situ

that provide agricultural workers with overtime and protect those in the country illegally from punitive action by their employers if they file wage complaints. Last year, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law that made it easier for farm workers to unionize and created a program to provide free legal help to immigrants


farmworkers involved in state labor investigations.

Yet enforcement of these laws doesn’t always happen on the ground, workers, advocates and union representatives told lawmakers Wednesday. Employees said they don’t trust government agencies because of deportation concerns and have encountered hurdles when trying to contact Cal/OSHA in the past.


Gonzalez, who works as a farm laborer harvesting tomatoes, blueberries and figs in Madera, said she has tried to help her colleagues file complaints with the state, but was unable to contact anyone who speaks indigenous languages. such as Mixteco at Cal/OSHA.

“This is causing us to lose confidence,” Gonzalez told lawmakers.

Congresswoman Esmeralda Soria (D-Merced) said she was dismayed by reports that Cal/OSHA workers have been “condescending” to farmworkers who have sought their help or ignored them.



‘It really infuriates me to hear that these vulnerable workers are usually unwilling to make the calls [Cal/OSHA] Because they are treated in such a way that when they call a government agency, their needs are not met,” Soria said.

Cal/OSHA’s Lee also responded Wednesday to several allegations from farm workers that state agency officials had tipped off state farmers about inspections in advance, a labor law violation that could lead to prison sentences.

“If this happens, this is something we want to know, we need to know and we will take action,” she said.


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