Inspectors find labor violations on Central Valley farms

LINDEN -- In just two days, labor inspectors had reaped a dubious harvest.

At least 10 confirmed or suspected minors harvesting fruit and weeding fields. A crew using short-handled weeding tools banned under state law. Filthy toilets. No place to seek shade. Water jugs but no cups. No safety plans, or training for farmworkers about the perils of heat.

Then, when they were about to call it a day, the inspectors pulled off a country highway in east San Joaquin County and drove just seconds down a dirt road cutting through a canopy of cherry trees. A vision from the Great Depression lay before them, they said.

More than 30 tents rose like mushrooms under the trees. Clothes hung from branches, and empty cans and food packages were piled high.

Smoke curled from one of the fire pits that had been dug in the soil.

About 100 male migrant workers who follow crops were sleeping on the ground by night in this orchard owned by R & J Don-dero Inc., and climbing ladders by day to pick the company's cherries. Only a few overflowing portable toilets and the orchard were available for the men.

"We're just working people, with nowhere else to stay," one of the migrants, Ramon Jiron, 32, said apologetically in Spanish.

State labor inspectors found all this, off back roads but in plain sight, during routine checks over two days in the Central Valley orchards and fields where anonymous human figures labor day after day.

In the 1960s, labor leader César Chávez began prodding the state to enact laws to protect farmworkers from wage theft and unsafe conditions. Yet poor treatment and flagrant violations endure in many California farms, activists and labor officials agree.

Beginning with Gov. Jerry Brown in the 1970s, each administration has formed special teams to root out abuses. Gov. Schwarzenegger formed the Economic and Employment Enforcement Coalition, with 66 inspectors versed in wage and occupational safety law. Inspectors spend three weeks a month on surprise visits to farms and other low-wage industries: car washes, construction sites and garment assembly shops.

Despite oversight, a young farmworker died last month after collapsing in a vineyard in 95-degree heat. Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, 17, fell ill after allegedly working hours without required water breaks and shade. According to witnesses, 90 minutes passed before she was taken to a clinic. She died two days later. Her employer, Merced Farm Labor, is under investigation on suspicion of violating state heat-stress rules.

Like thousands of California farmworkers, Maria was in the country illegally. Labor activists say such workers, often unaware they are covered under state and most federal labor laws, are most at risk of exploitation.

A week after the girl's funeral, her death sharp in their minds, state inspectors fanned out through eastern San Joaquin County to monitor employers and educate workers. In two days, they went to 25 farms, ordering two audits and citing employers for 80 violations, 25 related to heat-stress laws.

'Only as good as compliance'

The first day, a dozen inspectors gathered at 6:30 a.m. in front of a Holiday Inn in Modesto. They wore work clothes and enforcement coalition jackets, and supervisors making a special appearance gave them a pep talk before they headed out.

"A regulation is only as good as compliance," said John Duncan, director of the Department of Industrial Relations.

David Dorame, coalition director, told inspectors to put workers "in a comfort zone" by assuring them they were not immigration agents. If workers are scared to speak frankly, he said, they should be encouraged to call.

The group headed out in caravans of sport utility vehicles.

A short time later, one team stopped at a field where workers were planting tomatoes. Grower Donald Leinfelder's foreman had an emergency plan in his truck. He had water. But questions arose over whether he needed a portable source of shade.

"If it gets hot, we get in a car or under a tree," one worker said.

Leinfelder, who drove out to talk to inspectors, said workers don't plant if it's hot.

Occupational safety specialist Raymond Davila frowned. He said he'd check regulations to see whether a large tree cast sufficient shade to meet the standard.

Next, inspectors drove to a vast orchard near Morada, north of Stockton.

They could hear the sound of the cherry harvest. As pickers tossed the fruit into bins strapped to their chests, it sounded like a game of table tennis. Workers are paid by the bucket, a system that rewards endurance and speed.

Five contractors had hundreds of people scaling ladders as far as the eye could see. Dorame ordered a foreman to pull two boys from the orchard who were 16 and 17. They were working with their parents, without proper permits from a school district. Children 14 and older can harvest, but not during school days and not near dangerous equipment.

"Pardon me, señora, but we don't want your kids to get hurt. You need to get a permit for them," Dorame told their mother in Spanish.

She nodded from behind a scarf, her face streaked with sweat and dirt.

Some of the workers said they worked a week straight with no overtime pay. Others said they had to buy their tools, a violation of state law.

Some of the younger pickers, recently arrived from Mexico, had no idea what the minimum wage was. Contractors said they were earning at least $8 an hour, more if they were fast.

Some progress along the way

At another cherry orchard run by Lodi Farming Inc., inspectors were impressed to find every worker had been given pocket-size warnings, in Spanish, about heat stress.

A sign of progress, followed by discouragement when the next day, a team pulled up to a red onion field. Workers hunched as they inched through the rows of green tendrils. They were using small curved knives banned for sustained periods of weeding.

Crew bosses are tempted to use knives to weed between plants that grow close together, "but then you get into those ergonomic issues," said occupational safety specialist Aston Hing, touching his back and wincing.

Inspectors told the supervisor to bring the workers long- handled hoes. They noted there was no soap, towels or separate bathroom for the women.

Noel Zuniga, who monitors child labor, noted a reed-thin young woman. Librada Victoriano said she was 19 but stumbled when asked her birthdate. He suspected the girl, a Mixtec Indian from Guerrero, Mexico, was a minor, and cited the foreman.

"My daughter," he said in Spanish, "you are young. Those of us older people can stand the heat." Zuniga said an administrative law judge might toss out the citation if the employer produces evidence he was shown identification that looked proper. "But at least I'm sending a message," Zuniga said.

Owner says workers won't leave

At the close of the second day, Zuniga and his partners set out to check a rumor that a boss was charging workers for ice water.

That's when they came across the tent city in a Linden-area orchard. Stunned, they whipped out cell phones and called in the U.S. Department of Labor and San Joaquin County health inspectors. Those officials have jurisdiction over housing.

County officials summoned owner Christopher Dondero, who said he had tried to get the men to leave, but they refused. "I guess they pick our cherries," he said. "They work for our contractor. Do they work for us? No." He was told he was responsible for an unlicensed camp. The next day, his contractor was obliged to pay for rooms at Motel 6, and Dondero agreed to develop proper shelter.

José Garcia, a veteran farmworker of 44, was one of the migrants sleeping in the orchard. He received amnesty in 1986, he said, but that was long ago and now he's usually one of the few with legal papers. Over the years, he said, he's seen many injustices: "No water, no toilet paper, no place to wash your hands."

He was eager to give his opinion while others listened. "The system should change," he said. "I grew up poor, but I still like to wash my hands."