17-year-old’s death from excessive heat may lead to law protecting workers
Jose Luis Vasquez Jimenez, right, carries his sister's casket at the funeral for Maria Vasquez Jimenez at St Anne's Catholic Church in Lodi, Calif., on Wednesday, May 28, 2008. Maria Vasquez Jimenez died two days after collapsing in a San Joaquin County vineyard after working an eight-hour shift in 100-degree heat. | Michael McCollum / The Record via AP

LODI, Calif.—Just over 11 years ago, on May 14, 2008, Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, after toiling in excessive heat for three straight days picking grapes and hauling huge crates of them in the farm fields near Lodi, Calif., collapsed.

The pregnant 90-pound girl was earning money there to send back to her poverty-stricken family in Oaxaca, Mexico, says retired United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez. There was no water spigot for her to drink from, no shelter to retreat to when temperatures soared into the 90s and above, and no shade in the fields, even when she had time for lunch. She often didn’t.

Jimenez paid for her devotion with her life. And, this July 11, her death came to mean something on Capitol Hill.

“She fell to the ground because of the heat,” Rodriguez told People’s World on the day before a House hearing on a bill to try to prevent future heat deaths among farm workers, roofers, construction workers, highway crew workers, and any other worker forced to toil under the hot summer sun.

“The foreman left her on the ground, then put her in the back of a hot flatbed truck,” Rodriguez continued. The foreman first planned to take Jimenez home, but her fiancée finally convinced him to take her to a nearby clinic instead. It was too late.

“She died the next day. Her body temperature was over 100 degrees. The doctors told us her organs were cooked,” Rodriguez said.

Jimenez died even though California, after lobbying by the Farm Workers and a long campaign by then-State Sen. Judy Chu (D), had the nation’s first-ever regulations on the books, since 2005, ordering growers and all other employers to protect workers against heat-related injuries and deaths.

Firms could protect the workers by such simple measures as providing shade, water, shelter, and even cooling scarves workers could use to sponge their necks and hands—measures demonstrated at a July 10 outdoor press conference in D.C.’s sunny 90-degree heat.

But the farm labor contractor who brought Jimenez to those fields broke the state’s protective rules. The contractor later lost its license, but not before Jimenez’s death led UFW into another long campaign to enforce the regulations, including a 6-day march from Lodi to Sacramento, and a lawsuit.

The march and the litigation combined to force Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown to settle with the union and its allies in 2015. The settlement essentially makes worker reps, including UFW, the “eyes and ears” of enforcing heat protection rules in California’s fields.

“We could go out and monitor and check the conditions in the fields and make the reports to CalOSHA”—the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration—when growers break the state rules, Rodriguez says. “We become the enforcement.”

After Jimenez’s death, and the ensuing uproar, CalOSHA’s heat protections have succeeded, Chu and Rodriguez say. “It’s encouraging to drive down Highway 5 and Highway 99 and see all the trailers” protecting workers from heat, he says. “It relieves this suffering,” she adds.

So Rodriguez, UFW, 130 other groups, and their congressional allies want to take CalOSHA’s protections of workers from excessive heat and apply them nationwide. The need is there. Federal data show heat killed 783 farm workers alone from 2002-2016, and prostrated and injured 69,374 more. In 2008 in California, five more died after Jimenez, an UFW timeline of her case says.

The nationwide numbers back up Rodriguez, and Democratic Reps. Chu, who now represents Lodi and surrounding areas in the U.S. House, Alva Adams of North Carolina, and Raul Grijalva of Arizona. In 2017, the last year for which detailed data are available, 3.5 workers per 100,000 died on the job from all causes, the AFL-CIO’s latest Death On The Job report says.

But 23 of every 100,000 agriculture, fishing, and forestry workers died—the highest rate, by far.

Chu, Grijalva, Adams, and their allies introduced the Asuncion Valdavia Heat Illness and Protection Act, memorializing another dead farm worker. It went before the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee, which Adams chairs, on July 11.

Josefina Flores, right, carries a photograph of Maria Isabel Vasques Jimenez during a march to protest her death, near Thornton, Calif., June 2, 2008. | Rich Pedroncelli / AP

The Farm Workers and other organizations, including Farmworker Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Public Citizen, are campaigning for it. Their measure would order federal OSHA to write a rule to force all employers nationwide—not just growers—to protect their workers from excessive heat, and the deaths and injuries it causes.

“By putting an OSHA standard on the books, we can better protect our family members, friends, and neighbors who work in high-risk environments and limit their exposure to dangerous heat,” says Grijalva, whose Tucson-based southern Arizona congressional district is one of the nation’s hottest.

“These are human beings. Yet every day when they go out in the fields, they risk their lives so we can have food on our tables,” Rodriguez told People’s World. “I’ve been to too many funerals, and it’s hard to tell loved ones their relatives passed away because there wasn’t shade, shelter, or water.”

And the heat problem for workers will only get worse as temperatures soar—and keep soaring—due to climate change warming the earth, warned Robert Wiseman of Public Citizen: “We now have 90-degree days in Alaska, and soon summers in Michigan will look like summers in Phoenix.”

Farmworker Justice, the UFW, and its allies formally petitioned the Trump administration’s OSHA to write the rule protecting workers from heat, “but we got radio silence,” said Wiseman. “If it’s so devoted to a racist ideology or anti-immigrant zealotry”—because many farm workers and construction workers are Hispanic-named or African-American—“that it won’t act, Congress must.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.