California Democrats blasted the state’s workplace safety agency Wednesday after hearing testimony from farmworkers who said they were exposed to extreme heat and pesticides on the job and faced theft wages and other labor law violations.
In a hearing before the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee, 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, grapples with a 38 percent vacancy rate. This understaffing has worsened compliance with workplace safety in a high-risk sector where fear of retaliation or expulsion already prevents low-wage workers from filing complaints about workplace violations , the speakers said on Wednesday.
“I’ve heard over and over again that the laws in the areas are not the laws that we pass here at the state level,” Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno) said Wednesday. “We know that implementation is not working for our communities. »
A Cal/OSHA representative told lawmakers Wednesday that a new “agricultural enforcement unit” is in the works that will prioritize recruiting employees focused on agricultural work.
Committee Chairwoman Assembly Member Liz Ortega (D-San Leandro) said following the hearing that she was not satisfied with the state agency’s response and asked a Cal/OSHA audit.
Ortega called what’s happening on some farms in the state “dangerous and illegal” and refused Wednesday to accept funding problems as a reason for poor workplace safety compliance, emphasizing that Even though California currently faces a multibillion-dollar deficit, there was a budget surplus at the time when many of the farmworker complaints surfaced.
“To say I’m 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 possible audit could be facilitated through legislation or through a joint committee within the Legislature, which votes on matters deemed worthy of investigation. Other legislators including Arambula and Senator Dave. Cortese (D-San Jose) said he would support such an audit.
Debra Lee, head of Cal/OSHA, said she was “very concerned” by Wednesday’s testimony. Under the agency’s new farm enforcement unit, an anonymous farmworker helpline will be created and offices will be expanded in farm-rich places like the San Joaquin Valley, he said. -she declared.
“Our mission is worker safety and health,” Lee said during Wednesday’s hearing. “Workers’ lives and livelihoods depend on our ability to jointly prevent injury and illness. »
Agricultural work is considered some of the most dangerous in the United States, and the effects of climate change are exposing outdoor workers to potentially deadly heat more than ever.
California has laws that provide farmworkers with overtime pay and protect those who reside in the country illegally from being punished by their employers if they file wage complaints. Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that makes it easier for farmworkers to unionize and created a program to provide free legal assistance to immigrant 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. Workers said they don’t trust state agencies because of eviction issues and have faced obstacles when trying to contact Cal/OSHA in the past.
Cristina Gonzalez, who works as a farm worker and harvests tomatoes, blueberries and figs in Madera, said she tried to help her co-workers file a complaint with the state, but was unable to was able to contact someone speaking indigenous languages such as Mixteco at Cal/OSHA.
“It makes us lose confidence,” Gonzalez told lawmakers.
Assemblymember Esmeralda Soria (D-Merced) said she was stunned by reports that Cal/OSHA workers were “condescending” to farmworkers who asked for their help or ignored them altogether .
“It really makes me angry to hear that these vulnerable workers – workers who most of the time are not willing to call [Cal/OSHA] because they’re treated like crap — and when they call a state agency, they don’t get their needs met,” Soria said.
Cal/OSHA’s Lee also responded Wednesday to several farmworker allegations that state agency officials informed state farmers in advance about inspections — a labor law violation that could lead to a prison sentence.
“If this happens, it’s something we want to know, we need to know and we will take action,” she said.
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