Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Laborers’

The Other Victims of California’s Fires: Workers Inhaling Toxic Fumes

Wednesday, November 14th, 2018

With the death toll now standing at 42 and with some 7,200 structures destroyed, officials are now calling the wildfire in Paradise, CA (dubbed the “Camp Fire”) the deadliest and most destructive in California’s recent history. Two other massive fires—dubbed the Hill Fire and Woolsey Fire are simultaneously scorching Southern California.

As frontline firefighters—including many prison laborers—continue to battle the blaze while healthcare providers work around the clock treating fire victims, millions of other workers far away from the inferno are feeling a secondary impact: toxic smoke.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, over 160 miles away from the Camp Fire, air quality dramatically declined almost immediately after the fires broke out. Over the past week, AirNow, a government website reporting real-time air quality data has shown the Bay Area hovering between 150-200 on the federal Air Quality Index (AQI), surpassing 200 (or “very unhealthy” levels) in parts of the Bay. The higher the AQI value, the more polluted the skies are and the more concern there is for public health.

This week, the Bay Area also saw the second highest amount of fine particulate matter in the air ever recorded. This substance is not only made up of smoke from charred forests, but could contain everything that gets incinerated when residences go up in flames: cars, fuel, batteries, light bulbs, cleaning products, plastics, upholstery and more.

Public health officials have been advising residents of affected areas to stay indoors to avoid the unhealthy air that can lead to headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, eye irritation and worse.

However, for many workers who work outdoors for a living, that’s easier said than done.

While many white collar workers don protective masks to commute to office jobs where recirculated air conditioning provides some measure of protection from the smoky skies, hundreds of thousands of farmworkers, day laborers, landscapers, construction workers, public works employees and others have no choice but to work through the harmful haze—at great detriment to their health.

Many of these workers hail from neighborhoods and worksites already facing increased levels of toxins. Compounding the situation, these are also often the very same workers who are least protected by worker health and safety regulations.

“It’s been horrible,” says Kywanna Reed, who has been working 10-hour days outside this week as a traffic controller. “I wake up with headaches. I go to sleep with headaches. I have a headache right now, and a bag of headache medicine in the truck. My whole respiratory system is messed up. My coworker had a nosebleed and went home sick.”

Reed said her employer, American Construction & Supply Inc., did not provide masks to employees.

“Employers should pass out masks and you could choose to wear them or not,” says Reed, “But right now, they’re not doing anything.”

Other workers, however, say their employers are providing masks while verbally encouraging workers to protect themselves.

Cesar Fragoso, who works as a landscaper for Planting Justice, said the non-profit nursery in East Oakland passed out masks to employees.

“I work outside every day, weeding and transplanting plants. I can feel the smoke in my nose. My eyes started itching. I’ve been coughing. The masks help, but it’s tragic that we have to go through this in order for people to acknowledge what we are doing to the environment,” says Fragoso.

A 2017 news release from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) advises that “Employers with operations exposed to wildfire smoke must consider taking appropriate measures as part of their Injury and Illness Prevention Program under Title 8 section 3203 of the California Code of Regulations and as required under section 5141 (Control of Harmful Exposure to Employees).”

Those measures include “using a filtered ventilation system in indoor work areas,” “limiting the time that employees work outdoors” and “providing workers with respiratory protective equipment.”

However, as worker advocates note, holding employers accountable for taking such measures can be a challenge.

“Even though people we know from Cal/OSHA have made a tremendous effort, their presence in the field is so limited that it is really hard for them to do any kind of enforcement or implementation,” says Dinorah Barton-Antonio of the Labor and Occupational Health Program at UC Berkeley.

Other workers say they wouldn’t use a mask even it was provided, citing the already highly dangerous nature of their industries. Sixty-three-year-old carpenter Ruel Bernard smelled the smoke and started sneezing this week as he hung siding at a residential construction site, but chose not to wear a mask.

“Us older generation of construction workers, our bodies have been toxic waste dumps from the get-go. I started working in New York in 1971, breaking down plastic walls, climbing around in attics filled with insulation and dust. Every day I hurt myself at work, so at some point you’re just like ‘Fuck it,’” explains Bernard. “I know that’s a dinosaur, macho attitude. But that attitude helps us survive in this industry.”

The idea that the smoke from the wildfires is just one ingredient in an already toxic soup of working conditions resonates in farmworker communities.

Lucas Zucker is the Policy Director at Central Coast United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), which works with immigrant farmworkers in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. During last summer’s wildfires, CAUSE distributed N95 masks to workers in the field.

“Farm work is already dangerous on the day-to-day. This area has some of the highest use of toxic pesticides,” notes Zucker. “But then with the wildfires, the ag industry pushes to harvest their crop quickly to prevent damage to crops like strawberries and avocados. So we actually see an increase in production, with obvious implications for human health. Whereas a white collar worker might be able to take time off and have that paid, for farmworkers who get paid piece rate it’s hard for them to take that time off if they’re already living paycheck to paycheck.”

While much of the conversation in the Bay Area about protection from the smoke has focused on masks, some workers point to having power on the job—whether that be in the form of a union contract or worker ownership—as one of the largest factors in ensuring worker health and safety.

“We have a union here. It helps us get through things like this because I feel like we have some camaraderie and I can take steps to take care of myself without worrying that I’ll lose my job,” says Daniel DeBolt, who works as a deckhand on the ferry boats that shuttle tourists and commuters from Oakland to San Francisco and who has been experiencing headaches and fatigue all week.

Worker power on the job was also key for Dante Ortiz from Root Volume, a worker-owned landscaping cooperative.

“In 20 years of building gardens in wildfire-prone areas like Colorado and California, I’d never had a day where we had to pull out because of air quality, but that happened last Friday. We were doing heavy excavation, trenching for retaining walls. It’s hard work. You’re breathing heavily, which is the worst thing you could be doing,” says Ortiz. “So we all decided it was time to get out of there. Being in a worker cooperative gave us the agency to make that decision for ourselves.”

However, other workers like day laborers don’t have stable employment or consistent employers.

According to Gabriela Galicia, the Executive Director of the Street Level Health Project in Oakland, CA, “Workers stand on the corner for up to eight hours a day waiting for work. Many corners are already near toxic fumes, and now workers are out in the smoke too.”

Galicia notes that many workers are already thinking about heading north in search of work rebuilding fire-devastated communities, which carries its own risks to workers’ rights and their health. Worker exploitation and wage theft has marred reconstruction in post-disaster recovery efforts across the country.

“We’ve seen too many natural disasters where day laborers have been taken advantage of,” says Galicia. “They are human beings. They’re helping to rebuild. Treat them with dignity.”

As human-driven climate change intensifies and more of California becomes engulfed in flames, workers wonder whether toiling in toxic air is becoming “the new normal”—or if there can be a just transition to a new way of relating to land and labor.

CAUSE’s Lucas Zucker explains, “Ultimately, we need state or federal disaster aid that can fill in the gaps for workers exposed to disaster or toxic conditions so that they don’t have to make that horrible choice between putting food on their family’s table or being exposed to toxic conditions.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 13, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Brooke Anderson is an Oakland, California-based organizer and photojournalist. She has spent 20 years building movements for social, economic, racial and ecological justice. She is a proud union member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, CWA 39521, AFL-CIO.

N.M. Field and Dairy Laborers Win Right To Workers’ Comp—Court Calls Exemption ‘Absurd’

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

The New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled in June that excluding field and ranch workers from workers’ comp protection is unconstitutional. It was the second victory for New Mexico’s farmworkers in less than a year—and that’s big news in a low-wage sector made up primarily of immigrant workers, where victories tend to be few and far between.

The first victory came last August when farmworkers finally started getting paid the correct minimum wage. Farmworkers were routinely, and incorrectly, paid the federal minimum when they were entitled to the New Mexican minimum wage, which is 25 cents per hour higher. It only amounts to $8 or $10 a week, but it is significant for these workers, who are among the poorest in the United States.

And now, after six years of legal battles, the state Court of Appeals has upheld a District Court ruling that New Mexico’s farmworkers are not to be excluded from workers’ comp protection.

Farm work is among the most dangerous jobs in the United States, consistently ranking in the top 10 for injuries and death. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that 167 agricultural workers are injured every day. Despite this, only 12 states require full workers’ comp for farmworkers (13 now, including New Mexico); it’s optional in 16 states and required but limited in 21 others. Until the Court of Appeals’ decision, workers’ comp wasn’t required for New Mexico’s field workers or for ranch employees who worked directly with animals. That meant that on a dairy, for example, truck drivers and bookkeepers were covered, but milkers and workers moving the cows weren’t.

As In These Times reported in December 2014, on-the-job injuries are the rule, not the exception, in New Meixco’s dairy industry, and the lack of workers’ comp left some workers in dire economic straits:

Working with large animals poses a real risk of injury. In 2012, attorney Tess Wilkes was part of a team at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (NMCLP) that interviewed about 60 workers from various dairies in the state. Almost 80 percent of the workers said they had never received any safety training.

Most of the cows are docile, but not all. “The younger ones are dangerous,” says Antonio Jiménez, who worked in a dairy outside of Roswell during high school. “They don’t know how to be milked and [they] kick. Sometimes the ones that have just given birth [are dangerous], too.” The NMCLP survey found that 53 percent of the workers interviewed had been injured on the job, often more than once, and sometimes seriously.

In March, Matías Soto was working as a milker at a dairy in southeastern New Mexico. Somehow, a bull had gotten mixed in with the cows and stuck in one of the milking parlor gates. As Soto was trying to free the bull, he says, “It lowered its head and attacked me, lifting me 6 or 7 feet in the air. I hit my head on the concrete floor.” His skull fractured. But, he says, he wasn’t taken to the ER in Artesia, about 40 miles away, for three hours. He then had to be airlifted to a hospital capable of handling his injury. The cost of the helicopter alone was more than $60,000, and Soto’s hospital bills were in “the tens of thousands of dollars,” says María Martínez Sánchez, a former attorney at the NMCLP who worked with Soto. And the dairy had no workers’ compensation insurance.

Its medical insurance covered Soto’s medical bills, but not all of the helicopter costs. Instead, says Martínez Sánchez, Soto went into debt, borrowing from friends and relatives, although he eventually received a small amount of money in a settlement with the dairy.

In 2009 NMCLP filed suit challenging the exclusion on behalf of three injured workers who had been denied workers’ comp based solely on the exclusion. Attorneys from the organization argued that excluding farm and ranch workers violated the state constitution’s equal protection clause.

In 2011, 2nd District Court Judge Valerie Huling ruled that the exclusion is, in fact, unconstitutional. The New Mexico Workers’ Comp Administration (WCA) appealed that decision, stating that the District Court had overstepped its jurisdiction. The WCA lost that appeal, and the three workers in the lawsuit had their cases heard and were awarded workers’ comp benefits. But the WCA argued that the District Court ruling applied only to those three workers. Employers took that as a cue to continue routinely denying coverage to all other farmworkers.

In February of this year, NMCLP attorney Tim Davis challenged that interpretation in a suit on behalf of two injured workers who had been denied workers’ comp benefits. Noe Rodriguez suffered a head injury when he was attacked by a bull at the dairy farm at which he worked and Maria Angélica Aguierre broke her arm when she slipped and fell in a chile field. The New Mexico Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the District Court’s ruling that the exclusion was unconstitutional . The court stated, “Our review of the history of workers’ compensation statutes back to 1929 has not revealed an articulable purpose for the exclusion” and that the exclusion was “without purpose or reason and leads to absurd results.”

The ruling doesn’t mean that Rodriquez and Aguierre will automatically receive workers’ comp benefits, bu it means that their claims, and the claims of other injured farmworkers, can now be heard.

Maria Martínez Sánchez, one of the lead attorneys on the 2009 case, says she is “very happy” with the appellate opinion. “This ruling finally tells agricultural employers that they … must care for their workers in the same way all other employers in New Mexico are required to do,” she says.

While advocates are heartened by the Court of Appeals ruling, they’re also realistic. Farmworkers in New Mexico and across the United States continue to work under harsh conditions for little pay. The majority of states don’t offer farmworkers full workers’ comp benefits; most deny them overtime pay and the right to collective bargaining. Wage theft is rampant, as is sexual harassment and abuse. As Martínez Sánchez says, “There’s still much work to be done.”

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on July 20, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Joseph Sorrentino. Joseph Sorrentino is a writer and photographer. He has been documenting the lives of agricultural workers on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border for 12 years.

Fear of Anti-Immigration Law Leaves Empty Classrooms, Idle Farms

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

More from Alabama, where a delegation of African American labor and civil rights leaders is  investigating the state’s recently passed anti-immigrant law. Follow the delegation here.

A grade school child is there one day and gone the next. Dependable laborers don’t show up to pick crops on a farm.

“It’s incredible,” said local AFT president Vi Parramore.

I have teachers tell me that kids are disappearing overnight. Not unenrolling and leaving. Just all of a sudden gone, just gone! Crops are rotting in the fields!

Parramore shared what she knew at a roundtable at the Beloved Community United Church of Christ in Birmingham, Ala. The roundtable was part of a tour by national African American labor and civil rights leaders to help shed a light on one of the harshest immigration laws in the country and how it invokes inhumanity reminiscent of the Jim Crow South. The delegation has investigated first hand the impact of Alabama’s H.B. 56 on the lives of Latino working families.

Early in the day, the group toured a trailer park. Later, they met with small business owners. Alabama’s punitive anti-immigration law has cast a chill over the state’s Latino population. According to news reports, the new law says that police must report to federal authorities anyone they detain if they have a “reasonable suspicion” the person may be in the country illegally.

The wording of the law has prompted some local governments to threaten to cut off water service to people who can’t prove legal residency and some school officials to scrutinize the legal status of children, news reports said.

At the roundtable, teachers and other spoke about how the law impacted their lives and places of work. The point was to allow national leaders to gain a better understanding of the civil rights implications of the legislation and assess the law’s impact.

Said Parramore of Jefferson County AFT:

It’s a mess, I have to tell you. It really is a mess. It’s the civil rights issue of 2011. How can you treat people like this?

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now Blog on November 16, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog