State shuts down Merced Farm Labor

State authorities have shut down Merced Farm Labor, the contractor that employed a teen field worker who died May 16 of suspected heat exposure in San Joaquin County.

Department of Industrial Relations officials said they took the rare action Thursday to protect other workers from imminent danger. Payroll records show that the Atwater-based company employs 200 to 400 workers, according to the state's Labor and Workforce Development Agency.

"With temperatures rising we are taking this unusual step as a way to ensure that workers employed by this company are not put at risk," industrial relations director John Duncan said in a written statement.

"This order will be in force until the company is in full compliance with California heat illness prevention regulations."

On June 4, the state began a 30-to-90-day process to revoke the company's license. Officials discovered the company hadn't disclosed on a renewal application last September that it had been cited in 2006 for failure to follow heat illness regulations. The company never paid its fines, officials said.

In addition, on the morning of June 4, labor officials on an inspection sweep on a San Joaquin County farm came across Merced Farm Labor employees and concluded their supervisor did not have adequate heat-stress preparation, said Paul Feist, spokesman for the labor and work force agency.

Merced Farm Labor came under scrutiny after Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, 17, collapsed May 14 in a vineyard owned by West Coast Grape Farming. State officials allege she had tied vines for nine hours without shade or sufficient water.

She was not taken to a medical center for 90 minutes after collapsing, according to witnesses. She died May 16.

The company's attorney, Jim Gumberg of Salinas, said Thursday that the state was using "Gestapo-like tactics" against the contractor. He said Vasquez Jimenez's supervisor didn't realize she might be ill from heat because her fiancé, a co-worker, said she fainted from not eating.