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Farm Labor Contractor Fined in Worker's Death

posted on July 25, 2008

FRESNO, Calif. (AP)—The company that hired a pregnant teenager who died of heat stroke this spring after laboring in a Central Valley vineyard was hit Wednesday with the highest fine ever issued to a California farming operation.

The state Division of Occupational Safety and Health fined Atwater-based Merced Farm Labor a record $262,700 for violating eight workplace safety requirements. The agency said in some cases the violations were intentional.

Authorities believe 17-year-old Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez died on May 14 because her supervisors denied her access to shade and water as she pruned white wine grapes for more than nine hours in nearly triple-digit heat.

"I feel good because at least they're being fined for not doing anything when all that happened," said her fiance, 19-year-old Florentino Bautista, who is back working in the grape vines for a different employer. "Now we'll have to see if they keep acting the same way."

Inspectors found that Merced Farm Labor not only failed to provide water but deliberately neglected to train workers and managers on how to stay safe while working under the valley's punishing temperatures. The company also willfully skirted preparing for a medical emergency, the agency said.

Those three violations are classified the most serious and each carries a $70,000 penalty, the highest allowed under civil law.

The company has 15 business days to file an appeal, and if it does so, the case could go before an administrative law judge who could reduce, accept or increase the fines, division spokesman Dean Fryer said.

San Joaquin County authorities say they have started a criminal investigation into Vasquez Jimenez's death, but won't discuss the probe further while it's ongoing.

The girl was an immigrant from the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Labor Commissioner Angela Bradstreet also is in the process of revoking the contractor's license.

"There was virtually a complete absence of shade or water, two of the very few tools that employers and employees have to fight the heat," said Len Welsh, chief of the division known as Cal-OSHA. "It's just too bad we can't undo the consequences of those violations."

Merced Farm Labor's attorney, James Gumberg, did not return repeated calls Wednesday seeking comment.

Since Vasquez Jimenez's death, three other field laborers have died in incidents the agency is investigating as heat-related.

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