Farmworker's death was rare exception, ag leaders say

The weather has cooled in the three weeks since the death of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a teenage farmworker overcome by heat in a vineyard near Farmington.

But the debate still simmers over state rules aimed at keeping other workers from the same fate. Farm labor leaders said the danger persists despite rules put in place in 2005, after a spate of deaths.

"The farmworker is not an agricultural implement," said Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers. "People need to feel that the life of Maria Isabel, of whoever it is who's working in the fields, is important."

Vasquez Jimenez, an illegal Mexican immigrant, collapsed while pruning vines in 100-degree heat May 14, investigators said. She died two days later at Lodi Memorial Hospital. She was working for Merced Farm Labor, a contractor in Atwater. The vineyard is owned by West Coast Grape Farming, a division of Bronco Wine Co. in Ceres. Ag leaders said the girl's death was a tragic but rare case. They said they constantly work to assure that crews, most of them hired by contractors, get the required water, shade and other protections.

"There has been a lot of activity by the Farm Bureau and other associations to get the word out," said Paul Wenger, a Modesto-area nut grower and first vice president of the California Farm Bureau Federation. "I think it's being heeded pretty well."

This group has publicized the rules through its weekly newspaper, through English and Spanish cards that workers can carry, and through its Farm Employers Labor Service Web site.

State officials said they are revoking the contractor's license. It had three citations in 2006 for exposing workers to heat stroke, failing to train workers on heat stress prevention and failing to have toilets at the work site.

Officials are considering criminal charges against Merced Farm Labor.

"Employers or labor contractors who do not comply with the heat illness prevention standards will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law," according to Gov. Schwarzenegger.

Vasquez Jimenez's fiancé, Florentino Bautista, who was in the vineyard when she collapsed, said a foreman recommended that she rest in a hot van and be revived with rubbing alcohol.

But Elias Armenta, safety coordinator for the contractor, said in a statement that Bautista refused to call medical personnel and said he would take care of Vasquez Jimenez.

Her death prompted the UFW to organize a march this week from Lodi to Sacramento. In a speech outside the Capitol, Rodriguez said workers need enforcement of the rules and union representation to give them more weight.

"And when growers know it is easier for farmworkers to organize and bring in the union, employers are much more careful about obeying the law because they don't want to give the union an advantage," he said.

Farm Bureau attorney Carl Borden said most employers follow the rules.

"California farmers are already subject to the most stringent requirements in the nation," he said. "If they were not being followed, there would be many, many more tragic incidents."