June 6, 2008

María Isabel’s Farewell

By Jennie Rodríguez
Vida En El Valle

Editor’s Note: A service was held this week for 17-year-old farm worker María Isabel Vásquez Jiménez, whose death was the first occupational, heat-related fatality in California this season. Gov. Schwarzenegger, who attended the funeral, established regulations in 2005 to protect workers from California’s summer heat, but farm workers say the regulations are not being enforced.

LODI — The white casket, covered with a United Farm Workers flag, carried 17-year-old María Isabel Vásquez Jiménez on the first step of her journey home to Mexico.

“This land gives us a lot of opportunities but gave her death, and we have to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vowed at Jiménez’s funeral last Wednesday at St. Anne’s Catholic Church, where he offered her family his condolences.

Jiménez, an undocumented farm laborer from Oaxaca, Mexico, died May 16 from heat stroke she endured May 14 while working in a Farmington vineyard. The teen was about two months pregnant, doctors at Lodi Memorial Hospital discovered. Jimenez, whose body will be transported to Mexico today, migrated from Mexico in February in order to earn money to help her widowed mother.

“We’ve gathered ... to give María Isabel her last goodbye,” Father Jairo Ramírez said during a service attended by a few hundred people from throughout the Central Valley.

Family members and activists pleaded with the governor after the service, asking him for enforcement of the labor laws he put into place a few years ago.

“She left her country with the hope of the American dream, and now she returns in a coffin. I hope you can do something, Governor,” Verónica Galeana, one of the union’s members from Santa Rosa, told Schwarzenegger.

“This isn’t just about the dollars, it’s also about the price of lives,” said another Santa Rosa supporter, Carlos Romero, 31.

Jiménez’s death is the first occupational, heat-related fatality in California this season.

In 2005, Schwarzenegger established regulations to protect farm workers from California’s summer heat, requiring that employers provide workers four cups of water per person per hour, shaded resting areas, paid break periods of at least five minutes, safety training and an emergency plan.

Family members and the United Farm Workers said those laws were broken by the labor contractor that recruited Jiménez. They said the contractor, Merced Farm Labor of Atwater, didn’t take proper emergency action when Jiménez showed signs of heat exhaustion.

On May 14, Jiménez had been pruning grapevines since 6 a.m. alongside her 20-year-old boyfriend, Florentino Bautista, who lived in Lodi with her. The drinking water was about 10 minutes away, said Bautista, which took time away from working.

“(Supervisors) would grumble at us for drinking water,” Bautista said in Spanish.

Bautista said Jiménez complained of feeling dizzy and had become disoriented after working more than nine hours. She collapsed at 3:40 p.m. that day.

Bautista said supervisors didn’t call for emergency medics. Jiménez was offered neither water nor shade. Instead, they released her to Bautista, who attempted to revive her and then took her to a medical facility in Lodi.

Bautista said supervisors never gave him or Jimenez safety training, which the state mandates employers do.

Bautista also said the contractor told him to lie to medical staff. He said the contractor advised him to say Jiménez was jogging when she became ill and to say that the underage laborer was actually 18. Jiménez, who was 17, would have turned 18 on Oct. 18.

“I lost her and my child,” Bautista said after the service. His lips began to quiver.

Merced Farm Labor, which is under investigation by the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

“Employers must provide water and heat illness training, allow ill workers to take breaks in the shade and have an emergency plan if someone falls ill,” Schwarzenegger said in a sharply worded statement issued Wednesday. “Where there are violations of these regulations, we will prosecute employers to the full extent of the law. There is no excuse for failing to protect worker safety.”

Merced Farm Labor, owned by María De Los Ángeles Colunga, is still operating crews in San Joaquín County. The contractor has been cited for labor violations in the past, state records show.

In November 2006, the contractor was fined $2,250 in relation to three labor violations — two related to injury and illness prevention and one related to sanitation.

On an unannounced inspection in September of that year, Cal/OSHA inspectors found that Merced Farm Labor was in violation of labor standards requiring that employees be trained on the risks of working in the heat. That violation carried a $750 fine, according to inspection records.

The contractor also was found in violation of laws that require employers to maintain a plan for injury and illness prevention. The third violation was related to the availability of toilet and hand-washing facilities, the records said.

The contractor could not be reached for comment.

Child labor laws might also have been violated in Jiménez’s case, because she was a minor with no work permit. California law requires that employees younger than 18 have a work permit. Only children of agriculture employers and those who completed high school or a high school equivalency are exempt from this law, according to the state Department of Industrial Relations.

Furthermore, education law mandates that children from the ages of 6 to 18 be enrolled in school, regardless of whether they are citizens.

The San Joaquín County Office of Education has developed extensive outreach programs that attempt to identify migrant workers who, based on their age, should be in school.

México’s secretary of external relations released a statement May 28 expressing concern about the working conditions of Mexican immigrants in the United States, as news of Jiménez’s death broke. exico is asking for the reports of the state’s investigation.

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