February 17, 2004
Farmhands may get right to ask about pesticide perils
Some state lawmakers are pushing a bill that would allow migrant workers to ask employers
about dangers associated with pesticides they may be exposed to at work.
TALLAHASSEE - Florida's migrant farm workers would have the right to ask their employers
about the dangers associated with pesticides they use, under a pair of bills
making their way through the Legislature.
Worker advocates say the bills would help migrants become more aware of the true risks
associated with their jobs, and encourage them to be more cautious. Agriculture interests
remain worried about provisions in the proposed laws that would allow for persons other
than the worker -- including nonprofit advocacy groups -- to ask employers for the pesticide information.
Agriculture's fear, a member of the Florida Farm Bureau told two state House committees Monday,
is that some of those representing migrant workers might ask for pesticide information in hopes
of stirring up lawsuits.
''We don't want this to be a lawyer's relief act,'' Benjamin Parks, director of State Legislative Affairs
for the bureau, told the House Subcommittee on Workforce and Economic Development. That
subcommittee, along with the House's Commerce Committee, approved one version of the pesticide
law, sponsored by Rep. Frank Peterman, a St. Petersburg Democrat.
Future battles are likely over language determining who, exactly, can ask for pesticide information
on a worker's behalf. Some estimates peg the number of migrant workers in Florida in the
hundreds of thousands.
Peterman's proposal now moves to the Agriculture committee, where a similar effort died last year.
That committee is dominated by lawmakers with strong ties to the industry. Its chairwoman,
Rep. Marsha ''Marty'' Bowen, a Republican from Winter Haven, is a citrus grower.
In the mid-1990s, Florida had a law similar to what is now proposed. It passed in 1994,
but was allowed to expire four years later.
On Monday, migrant workers and their families drove to the Capitol from faraway towns such as Dade City
and Apopka to urge lawmakers to push forward with Peterman's measure. Although current federal regulations
require farms to post information on pesticides in a central location, several workers who made the trip to
Tallahassee said they spent years unaware of the dangers.
''They'll tell you how to work, but they won't explain the pesticides to you,'' said worker Margarita Chacon,
34. Chacon said she learned of potential pesticide side effects on television and now wonders if she'll become
ill in the future.
Peterman's proposal, along with a similar law being pushed by Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican,
would entitle workers or representatives such as charitable organizations and medical personnel to ask
employers about negative health side effects that can be caused by exposure to pesticides.
The law would also fine and criminally prosecute farms that penalized workers for asking about
Although Peterman's bill failed to make it last year to a full House vote, this year's effort could benefit
from Rivera's simultaneously pushing the issue.
Rivera made two amendments to Peterman's bill Monday to make it more palatable to agriculture interests,
and both lawmakers said they are willing to combine their bills at a future date.