April 24, 2009

3 charged in death of pregnant farmworker

FRESNO, CA - Three top officials for a now-defunct farm labor contractor have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of a pregnant teenager who collapsed from heat stroke after working in a sweltering vineyard last year.

San Joaquin County District Attorney James Willett announced the charge Thursday in the case of 17-year-old Maria Vasquez Jimenez, who authorities say died May 14 because she lacked access to shade and water as she pruned white wine grapevines for more than nine hours in nearly triple-digit heat at a Central Valley vineyard.

Maria De Los Angeles Colunga, the former owner of Merced Farm Labor; Elias Armenta, the former safety director; and Raul Martinez, a former supervisor were charged with involuntary manslaughter and one felony and five misdemeanor violations of the state labor code.

The company's civil attorney, Jim Gumberg, said the charges were "very unfortunate." Their criminal attorney did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Vasquez Jimenez was born in a village deep in Mexico's Sierra Madre range and migrated to California's agricultural basin last year to look for work and live with her fiance.

The couple found jobs pruning grapes in a Stockton-area vineyard owned by West Coast Grape Farming, Inc., which contracted with Merced Farm Labor for its work force.

After she collapsed, her fiance, Florentino Bautista, said Vasquez Jimenez's supervisor recommended she rest in a hot van and be revived with rubbing alcohol before Bautista could take her to a Lodi medical clinic, almost two hours later. Doctors later realized she was two months pregnant.

Relatives said she was making $8 per hour that day on a 9.5-hour shift more than four hours over the state limit for minors working during business days.

On Thursday, Vasquez Jimenez's aunt said she hoped the charges would encourage safer labor conditions on farms.

"That's good to hear," said Candida Jimenez, who lives in Stockton. "We didn't want nothing to happen after her death. We hope this goes forward."

Last year, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health fined Merced Farm Labor $262,700 for violating eight workplace safety rules, the highest fine ever issued to a California farming operation. The agency said some of the violations were intentional, and the company surrendered its license soon thereafter.

In a separate civil complaint filed Thursday, Willett charged Colunga, the farm labor contractor and West Coast Grape Farming, Inc. with engaging in unfair business practices by violating numerous provisions of state labor and workplace safety codes.

Prosecutors are seeking between $27,500 and $5.5 million in civil penalties, in addition to the agency's costs in bringing the case. The complaint remains open to charge additional defendants in the future, authorities said.

Authorities say West Coast Grape Farming is a division of Bronco Wine Co., which makes the popular cut-price wine known as Two Buck Chuck.

Malcolm Segal, an attorney for West Coast Grape Farming, said the company planned to contest the allegations.

"West Coast handles its business practices in an appropriate way," Segal said. "Needless to say, it's always tragic when someone loses a life, and we are certainly sympathetic."

A Bronco Wine Co. spokesman said the company did not have any comment.

California which in 2005 implemented the country's first heat-illness standard requires that farms and contractors give workers water and breaks, have shade available and have emergency plans in place.

Thursday, as temperatures soared again in the valley, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said officials were stepping up enforcement to protect workers from heat-related illness. So far this year, state officials say they have conducted 380 heat safety inspections and has cited 145 businesses for not having heat-illness prevention plans in place.

"Worker safety from heat illness must and will be protected in California, and I applaud the San Joaquin County District Attorney's office for their actions today," Schwarzenegger said. "Every single worker in California is valued and must and will be treated that way in the workplace."