Youth heat cases raises ag labor concerns

FRESNO -- The case of a 16-year-old farmworker who suffered from heat illness last month has spurred investigations into alleged labor violations, and raised issues about heat illness prevention, child labor, and the ability for workers' to stand up for their rights.

One day in early July, 16-year-old Nicholas Chávez of the Tulare County community of Tipton was working the night shift in the pepper fields near Bakersfield with his parents, according to the United Farm Workers account of the case. Vida en el Valle was unable to interview Nicholas directly.

When he started work at 6 p.m., the temperature was still in the triple digits, according to the UFW. After an hour of work, Nicholas began suffering from severe stomach pain and eventually began vomiting, according to the UFW report.

Around 9 p.m., a co-worker learned of Nicholas' symptoms, and advised him to drink some water and take a break. Nicholas told the assistant foreman why he was taking a break, according to the UFW.

Around 12:30 a.m., the foreman asked if Nicholas was ready to go back to work, and he replied he still felt sick. The foreman left Nicholas by the side of a car, and he waited until 4:30 a.m. for his parents to get off of work, according to the UFW.

"They never offered to take me to the hospital or give me fresh water, they just laughed at me," Nicholas said in a statement to the UFW. "I was very afraid of falling asleep and not waking up. I didn't want to worry my mother, because if she stops working, she would lose her job."

California law requires employers to provide employees in outdoor industries with training in heat illness prevention; enough fresh water so each employee can drink at least one quart per hour; access to shade, and the opportunity to take a five-minute rest to cool down; and written procedures for complying with the heat illness standard.

Last year, about 75 percent of employers in outdoor industries complied with these regulations, said Cal/OSHA spokeswoman Erika Monterroza.

Nicholas' mother had seen her son vomiting, but feared that if she stopped working to help him, she would be fired, according to the UFW.

But the next day, when Nicholas' parents returned to work, they were fired, and the foreman refused to pay them for the previous days they had worked, according to the UFW report.

Nicholas' family turned to the UFW for help, and the state Department of Industrial Relations is now investigating at least two violations of labor laws, including:

A retaliation claim is pending with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement's retaliation unit, alleging that all three family members was fired after pointing out safety violations;

A claim with the Division of Occupational Health and Safety, known as Cal/OSHA, alleges the employer did not comply with heat illness prevention regulations.

The employer has also been cited for two counts of child labor violation. Those citations are for:

Employer's failure to provide a copy of a work permit, authorized by a school administrator or counselor;

Violation of a limitation on work hours, or restriction from working excess night hours. This investigation is ongoing.

Cal/OSHA investigations can take between four and six months.

Nicholas' story spotlights the importance of raising awareness of heat illness and how to prevent it, Monterroza of Cal/OSHA said.

Workers "have to be aware and be on guard that you have to drink plenty of water, and have to watch out for signs of heat illness," she said.

"On top of that, there has to be sufficient and effective training, so workers, supervisors, and crew leaders, understand and are able to act appropriately when they see any kind of heat-related symptom -- that can quickly get out of control."

Heat illness is especially a concern for children and teenagers, who are more susceptible to its health impacts, said Levy Schroeder, director of the health and safety programs at the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP.)

"The problem with heat stress in children is they are more vulnerable because their systems are not yet developed," she said. "Physically, they are just more vulnerable to heat stress and other kinds of health problems."

For Norma Flores López, director of AFOP's Children in the Fields campaign, Nicholas' experience highlights the overall dangers children and teenagers face when working in agriculture.

Young farmworkers, she said, face 10 to 12 hour workdays, where they are working with dangerous equipment and tools, and are exposed to health-threatening chemicals.

"This story is the perfect example of just how dangerous agriculture is," she said.

Agriculture, she said, "is continuously ranked by the Department of Labor as one of the top three most dangerous industries, with mining and construction. Child labor laws keep kids out of mining and construction, but we continue to allow for these children to work in agriculture."

Federal law allows kids to perform hazardous work in agriculute at age 16, but the minimum age for hazardous work in all other industries is 18, according to the Children in the Fields campaign.

UFW national vice president Armando Elenas said the case underscores the need for farmworkers to have the proper tools to protect their health and rights. SB 104, known as the farmworkers 'card-check' bill, would have changed the way agricultural union elections are held, he said, but the Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill in June.

"This is one incident where a family had the will and strength to come forward, but there are many other cases that never even come to light," Elenas said. "They are not going to speak out if they going to be fired, which is what happened to this family."

The bottom line, he said, is "Jerry Brown failed to give farmworkers the tools they need."

People who are concerned about any unsafe conditions in their workplace should call Cal/OSHA's heat help line, 877-99-CALOR, or visit