State to revoke license of Merced Farm Labor

The company that hired a 17-year-old farmworker who died after working in the fields east of Stockton is being stripped of its farm labor contracting license.

On Wednesday, California Labor Commissioner Angela Bradstreet began the 30- to 90-day process of revoking the license of Maria De Los Angeles Colunga, who operates Merced Farm Labor out of Atwater.

The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also investigating Merced Farm Labor in connection with the death of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez on May 16. She had collapsed two days earlier after pruning vines for eight hours in the heat.

Neither Maria De Los Angeles Colunga nor Merced Farm Labor representatives returned calls from The Bee on Wednesday.

The company will be able to appeal the removal of its license.

Paul Feist, assistant secretary of communications for the Labor and Workforce Development Agency, said the license revocation stems from troubles the company had two years ago.

The agency is revoking the license because Merced Farm Labor provided "false information" on its license application in September, he said, by not disclosing that it was cited in 2006 for failing to train employees how to avoid heat stress and other offenses.

He said Merced Farm Labor also never took care of those citations – either by appealing them or paying $2,250 in fines.

In a statement released Wednesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said, "Employers or labor contractors who do not comply with the heat illness prevention standards will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."

Schwarzenegger and United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez have condemned employers that violate regulations designed to protect workers. They also have said that Vasquez Jimenez's death was preventable.

On Wednesday, about 50 UFW members, relatives of Vasquez Jimenez and other supporters carried a black casket to the Capitol in honor of the young woman and other workers who have died from heat-related conditions. They began their pilgrimage Sunday in Lodi, where Vasquez Jimenez was living.

Also on Wednesday, a team of workplace inspectors from Cal-OSHA, the labor commissioner's office and other agencies found another Merced Farm Labor work site near Escalon in violation of state laws.

Feist said the company was providing shade and water for about a dozen workers tying grape vines. In violation of state law, however, the workers had been required to bring their own tools. The company also had not posted wage-and-hour rules or schedules of when workers could take breaks. Feist said his office will investigate further.

If Cal-OSHA finds that Merced Farm Labor willfully violated laws designed to protect workers from the heat in relation to Vasquez Jimenez's death, the company could face fines up to $25,000. Representatives of the company also could face criminal prosecution by either the local district attorney or the state attorney general.