By Eli Wolfe, FairWarning
For the second time in recent months, the U.S. Department of Labor has extracted penalties from a California farm business blamed for the deadly crash of a vehicle transporting migrant field workers to their jobs.
The Labor Department announced this month that Fisher Ranch LLC — a major produce farm near Calexico, close to the Mexican border — has agreed to pay $49,104 for violating the Migrant Seasonal Workers Protection Act. The case stemmed from a March 2017 van crash that killed one laborer and hurt six others.
The settlement was reached less than a week after the Labor Department made the rare decision to file a complaint against Fisher Ranch and its owner, Bart Fisher, under the migrant seasonal workers law. In April, a settlement was reached under the same law with a farm labor contractor over a fatal crash near Fresno, in Central California. Until then, the Labor Department hadn’t brought a case under the migrant workers law in California in at least 15 years.
Congress enacted the migrant workers statute in 1983 to update a law regulating farm labor contractors. The earlier version was drafted partly in response to the 1960 documentary “Harvest of Shame,” CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow’s famed expose of farm worker exploitation. The migrant workers law requires agricultural employers that rely on farm labor contractors to ensure that the contractors are registered and licensed by the Labor Department and use vehicles meeting safety standards.
The deadly March 2017 crash involved a van that, authorities said, overturned when one of its tires blew out while en route to Fisher Ranch’s fields.
The federal complaint alleged that Fisher failed to verify that the labor contractor, Healthy Harvesting, was insured and authorized to transport workers. Drawing on details from a California Highway Patrol crash report, the complaint said two of the van’s tires were bald, two wheels were missing lug nuts, and the vehicle was missing a seatbelt. Labor Department lawyers added that the driver did not have a commercial license and his personal license was suspended.
The Labor Department also accused Fisher Ranch of failing to pay workers for the time they spent waiting at the fields during the early morning while the crops defrosted, and for failing to request payroll records for the workers hired by Healthy Harvesting. Fisher agreed to pay $21,168 in back wages.
The conclusion of the Fisher case follows the government’s April settlement with Valley Garlic Inc. and its farm labor contractor X-Treme Ag Labor Inc. over a June 2015 car crash. While an X-Treme Ag employee was driving a van of workers from Gilroy to Merced, the vehicle flipped on the highway, ejecting six passengers from the car. Four of them died, including a 16-year-old girl.
No one wearing seatbelts
According to a federal suit filed in Fresno, X-Treme Ag violated MSPA by transporting workers in an “unsafe” vehicle operated by a driver without a valid license. The Labor Department said none of the workers were wearing seatbelts, and that X-Treme Ag’s contract with Valley Garlic didn’t allow it to transport workers.
The government also charged Valley Garlic and X-Treme Ag with violating the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to pay workers for all of their travel time after being picked up and by forcing migrant workers to kick back $10 of their daily wages to pay for transportation.
X-Treme Ag and its owner, Isabella Camacho, agreed to pay $46,000 in back wages and penalties and were permanently banned from working as farm labor contractors. The Department of Labor required Valley Garlic to pay $45,900 in civil penalties and accept random compliance audits of their fields during peak harvest.
At least six personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits have been filed against X-Treme since the accident, according to court documents.
FairWarning left multiple phone messages seeking comment from Fisher Ranch, Valley Garlic and X-Treme Ag, but no one replied.
The Labor Department signaled that it wanted California farm employers to take better care of their workers.
“Farmworkers should not be putting their lives on the line simply by being transported to and from the fields by unqualified drivers using unsafe vehicles,” said the Labor Department’s regional solicitor, Janet Herold, in the news release announcing the Fisher Ranch settlement.
There is no official database specifically tracking highway crashes involving migrant farm workers. But a recent investigation by the Associated Press uncovered more than a dozen such crashes nationwide that occurred in 2015 and 2016, killing 38 and injuring almost 200. The figures – derived from interviews, public records requests and online news reports — were almost certainly an undercount, according to the AP.
Blaz Gutierrez, a director with California Rural Legal Assistance, a nonprofit legal group that represents farm workers but wasn’t involved in either of the two recent federal cases, agreed that such accidents are underreported. “If you drive out to any rural area you’ll see a lot of crosses out on the road,” Gutierrez said, maintaining that some of them memorialize migrant workers killed in road crashes.
Gutierrez said he wasn’t convinced the two recent settlements with California farm businesses will deter future bad behavior. “It’s really just a drop in the ocean,” Gutierrez said.
The California Farm Bureau, which represents growers in the state, and the California Farm Labor Contractors Association, failed to respond to requests for comment.
This story was produced by FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org), a nonprofit news organization based in Southern California that focuses on public heath, consumer and environmental issues.