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A Farmworker Death in California Heat Has UFW, Padilla Urging Major Changes

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Seven farmworkers are seen bent over in a field of green produce that comes up to their waists. It's a bright, sunny day. Many of the workers are wearing large, straw hats and long-sleeved clothing.
Farmworkers work on a field outside of Bakersfield in Kern County on July 25, 2023.  (Larry Valenzuela/CalMatters via CatchLight Local)

As Fresno-area temperatures sizzled around 100 recently, a 59-year-old tomatillo field worker collapsed and died. The coroner listed the cause of death as cardiovascular disease caused by cholesterol buildup; the farmworkers’ union blamed it on working in such heat.

“Elidio Hernández should not have died,” said United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero at a Friday press conference in Delano. “Elidio had two young daughters who now don’t have a father.”

The case shines a spotlight on the effectiveness of a California law designed to protect workers laboring outdoors in searing temperatures — and it took center stage at a press conference called by U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla to push federal legislation that would impose stronger federal heat protections in workplaces.

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Romero said the 59-year-old father of two, whose full name is Elidio Hernández Gómez, reported feeling ill to his supervisor but did not receive help. After he collapsed, his supervisor and coworkers did not report the incident, she said, but his coworkers were told to take him to a hospital.

National weather services reported temperatures in the Fresno area around 100 degrees on Aug. 8. A coroner’s report said he was pronounced dead at 1:44 p.m.

The coroner’s report says Hernández Gómez’s death was due to ​​atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, which is when cholesterol plaque builds up in arteries, obstructing blood flow.

There was no evidence showing whether heat played a role in his death, said Tony Botti, spokesperson for the Fresno County Coroner’s office.

Romero did not disclose the names of the employer or the workers. CalMatters has been unable to identify Hernández Gómez’s employer or to speak to his family members or coworkers.

Romero said the union and the United Farmworkers Foundation are assisting the family but family members fear retaliation. Hernández Gómez’s sister-in-law, Ana Navarro, told the Fresno Bee the family is still searching for answers and just wants to “know what really happened.”

Some of Hernández Gómez’s relatives have organized a GoFundMe page to raise money to send his body back to his native Guanajuato in Mexico. The page says Hernández Gómez died from a heart attack caused by working in the heat.

A staffer at the Fresno district office of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health told CalMatters Thursday the office has not received a report of the farmworker’s death.

Cal/OSHA asked UFW officials for information about the incident Friday, Romero said.

A Cal/OSHA statement said the agency is “gathering facts to determine whether to conduct an inspection.”

The announcement places a spotlight on California because it is one of the few states with an outdoor heat standard that is supposed to protect farmworkers. The state often is cited as an example by lawmakers pushing for tougher federal workplace standards — although California still does not have heat rules for indoor workplaces.

A group of men and women some in business attire, many in red T-shirts, sit around a large group of tables discussing a serious matter as many wear solemn faces. They're inside a conference room that has many framed pictures on the walls and a fireplace is pictured in the background.
Sen. Alex Padilla during a roundtable discussion with local organizers and farmworkers in Delano, Kern County, on Aug. 18, 2023. (Julie Leopo-Bermudez/CalMatters)

Any state investigation into Hernández Gómez’s death could also test two new initiatives Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration recently touted as tools for protecting workers.

One is the recent establishment of temporary regional offices by Cal/OSHA, announced on Aug. 10, in several parts of the state — including Fresno — where there has been increased demand for services from workers and advocates seeking responses to complaints, accidents and requests for proactive high-heat inspections.

More on California Farmworkers

The other state tool involves administrative actions to protect immigrant workers.

California labor department officials earlier this year said they have begun supporting undocumented workers’ requests for “prosecutorial discretion” or “deferred action” from federal immigration officials so that undocumented workers would not be deported or detained if the workers are involved in state labor investigations.

Newsom’s office took it a step further in July, announcing plans to refer and pay for immigration legal services for undocumented workers assisting the state with labor investigations, whether as victims or witnesses.

At least 112 federal lawmakers recently signed a letter (PDF) pushing President Joe Biden to take administrative actions to better protect workers from too-hot workplaces.

Padilla also recently cosponsored the Asunción Valdivia Heat, Illness, Injury and Fatality Prevention Act, which refers to a California farmworker who died of heat illness in 2004. The subsequent deaths of several other farmworkers the following year led to California adopting such outdoor heat standards as requiring employers to provide water and shade breaks for workers and emergency response and transportation for workers sickened by heat.

The bill recently went to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. It has 18 cosponsors in the Senate and 35 in the House of Representatives.

Romero said California’s outdoor heat standard has saved lives, but employers have to know there will be legal consequences if they don’t take action when their employees show signs of heat illness.

“The law on the books is not the same as the law in the fields,” she said.

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