In Stockton
Cherry harvest is target for surprise labor inspections

California-grown is the most common label in the nation for agricultural products. California’s total crop production represents a greater proportion than Texas and Iowa combined – the second and third leading agricultural states in the country.

More than 400,000 workers are employed on California farms during peak harvest seasons. They face hazards that make agriculture one of the four most dangerous industries in the state along with mining, construction and manufacturing.

Farmworkers confront dangers from machinery and tractors, heat, lack of field sanitation, and risk injury from using short-handled tools for weeding and thinning in a squatting or kneeling position. Exposure to fertilizers and pesticides can cause skin disorders if gloves and safe tools are not provided workers.

These are some of the reasons why Cal/OSHA launched the Agricultural Safety and Health Inspection Project (ASHIP) in 1999 and increased inspections 25 percent at a time when the Legislature also enacted measures that toughened requirements on licensing for farm labor contractors, stiffened penalties for labor law violations and expanded the ability of farmworkers to recover lost wages.

The temperature is climbing into the triple digits this day as inspectors from Cal/OSHA and the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) team up to examine working conditions in the cherry orchards near Stockton. They arbitrarily stop at orchards, introducing themselves to the employer or employer representative before questioning workers about their pay, meal and rest breaks and checking out field sanitation facilities and possible child labor violations. They also confirm workers’ compensation coverage.

Mary Bishofberger, a Cal/OSHA compliance engineer for 30 years who remembers working in the fields, packing fruit and making boxes and pallets while growing up in then-rural Contra Costa County, carries her camera with her. She shoots photos of any safety and health violations she discovers.

“I think workers need to know there are state agencies truly concerned about their welfare and trying to make their jobs better,” she says. “I like that. That is the whole premise of why I went to work for Cal/OSHA.”

She is accompanied by senior deputy labor commissioner Ginny Baty, who has worked 18 years with DLSE. Usually she works in an office, but today she accompanies the inspectors on the sweep of cherry orchards. She loves it.

“I miss this work,” says Baty who worked as a field inspector earlier in her career. “It’s rewarding to help workers. It’s rewarding when you get them back wages or make sure they are covered by workers’ compensation.”

Her colleague, Gloria Ramirez agrees. Ramirez started with DLSE 16 years ago processing wage claims and now works as an industrial relations representative on agricultural inspection sweeps. She jokes that she has adapted to her work environment, from wearing high heels in the office to sporting combat boots in the field. But she is dead serious about her work.

“We’re out here to educate the employer and protect employee rights,” says Ramirez. “We make a difference on both sides of the scale.”

Sometimes the difference is in wages. The workers in these orchards are paid piece rate and receive between $5 and $5.15 per tub of cherries. During a day, their average yield is approximately 15 tubs. Ramirez later says that many times employers believe because they pay piece rate they don’t have to pay the state’s minimum wage of $6.75 per hour.

The inspection team discovers a minor without a work permit working in the orchards and cites the employer. Youth under 18 are required to have a work permit and those under 16 are restricted from such work as driving a tractor, working on a ladder over 20 feet, applying pesticides or loading and unloading a truck or conveyor.

In the San Joaquin Valley, one of the major producers of cherries in California, DLSE has increased its community outreach efforts, says Ysmael Raymundo, regional manager who oversees agricultural inspection sweeps throughout the state. It’s made a difference in enforcement.

“I have found the level of compliance with labor law steadily increasing,” says Raymundo, who worked as a farmworker while studying sociology at Fresno State University. “When we go on sweeps now, many employers are ready for us. They don’t just see us as a hammer; they listen to us. They know we know what we’re doing.”

Agriculture employers must post these California notices: