Trial to Shed Light on Status of Workers Hired to Help Fight California Wildfires

1 min
Robert Reagan, 35, of Fresno County, died July 26, 2016, when his bulldozer overturned while trying to access a proposed fire line near Big Sur.  (Cal Fire)

The man who hired the only person to die fighting a fire that scorched more than 130,000 acres near Big Sur in 2016 is going on trial this week.

Ian Czirban employed Robert Reagan, a contract bulldozer operator killed in the Soberanes Fire.

Reagan, 35, of Fresno County, died after the bulldozer he was operating toppled down an embankment several days after the Monterey County wildfire began in July 2016, leaving behind a wife and two children.

But this week's trial is not about the fire or what caused Reagan's death. Instead, it is centered on the employment status and protections for workers who take on some of the most dangerous jobs on California's fire lines every year.

Reagan's death led to investigations by Cal Fire, state workplace regulators and the Contractors State License Board, who determined that Czirban, the owner of Madera County-based Czirban Concrete Construction, did not have a valid workers' compensation insurance policy, a benefit he was required to have if he employed others to operate his equipment.

More on the Soberanes Fire
Loading

In fact, each year since Reagan's death, workers operating heavy equipment for private employers who contract with Cal Fire to help California battle large wildfires have been killed on the job. None of those employers had workers' compensation insurance.

In October 2017, Garrett Paiz died after the water tanker he was driving crashed in Napa County. Paiz was a private contractor helping firefighters battle the Nuns Fire, one of a series of blazes that devastated the North Bay.

After the crash, state regulators learned that his employer, Red Bluff-based Tehama Transport, did not have workers' compensation insurance, leading the state Labor Commissioner's Office to fine the company and order it to shut down.

Last year, the commissioner's office cited Robert Dominikus General Engineering, the El Dorado County firm that hired Donald Ray Smith, an 82-year-old bulldozer driver who died during the Carr Fire in Redding, after it learned the company did not have valid workers' comp coverage.

In the Soberanes Fire case, Monterey County District Attorney's charged Czirban with insurance and workers' comp fraud and failure to pay taxes, among other counts.

He has pleaded not guilty. Close to three years after Reagan's death, his trial is due to begin in a Salinas courtroom Tuesday.

Prosecutors say Czirban operated his business without workers' comp for more than two years.

"For awhile, the defendant's gamble paid, as his seasonal bulldozer contract with CalFire earned him about $156,000 in income while he was able to avoid expensive insurance for clearly hazardous work,"  Deputy District Attorney John Hubanks wrote in trial brief filed last week.

Hubanks says Czirban filed false documents with Cal Fire, had a history of contractors license suspensions and failed to maintain workers comp coverage for years.

Czirban argues that Reagan was not an employee, but instead an independent contractor. Both prosecutors and the defense note that Czirban and Reagan agreed via text to an arrangement in which Reagan would be paid $625 a day for operating the dozer at the Soberanes Fire.

"There is no evidence that Mr. Reagan had ever done paid work for Czirban Concrete Construction before this agreement," defense attorney Daniel Olmos wrote.

Reagan, who was working at night in unfamiliar terrain, was killed within minutes after he began operating the dozer.

Sponsored

Olmos plans to call Keith Wolford, who worked for Cal Fire between 2004 and 2017, supervising heavy equipment contractors. Wolford plans to testify that more than 80 percent of the contractors he supervised used independent contractors.

The fact that Czirban is being criminal prosecuted sends an unusually strong message to employers in California, according to Veena Dubal, an associate professor at UC Hastings College of Law, who specializes in employment and has followed cases involving heavy equipment contractors in Californias wildfire gig economy.

"Those who violate California employment laws by fraudulently misclassifying their workers as independent contractors may face not only civil penalties, but also criminal ones," Dubal said. "For other Cal Fire contractors, the message here is very clear: not treating your workers as employees is a gamble that could put you behind bars," she said.

But California should do the same for bigger companies, Dubal said.

"There is some injustice in this man being prosecuted while large, multi-national corporations regularly misclassify their workers," she said.

Volume
KQED Live
Live Stream
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
Live Stream information currently unavailable.
Share
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
KQED Live

Live Stream

Live Stream information currently unavailable.