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KCBX Two-Way: How to keep farmworkers safe after two fatal accidents in the Central Coast

Farm Workers waving hello to the Amtrak Coast Starlight as it passes through the Central Coast.
Flickr.com / Timothy Donovan
Farm Workers waving hello to the Amtrak Coast Starlight as it passes through the Central Coast.

Two Central Coast farm workers died while working this year.

In September, Jose Samuel was fatally injured by a tractor at Rancho Guadalupe. Later that month, Rosa Sanchez died after being run over by a truck while picking carrots at the New Cuyama Grimmway Farms. The California Division of Occupation Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) is currently investigating both cases.

KCBX’s Amanda Wernik spoke with Senior Policy Advocate, Andrea Echeverri with the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, or CAUSE, about the unsafe working conditions that farmworkers face and what our region can do to protect them.

Amanda Wernik: Can you tell us more about what happened in the recent incidents? Does this happen often?

CAUSE Senior Policy Advocate, Andrea Echeverri: Yeah, definitely. This is happening often due to or lack of enforcement, lack of training, language barriers and other issues.

Rosa Sanchez was a 58-year-old farm worker. She died after a truck ran over her, and the saddest thing is workers were told to continue picking carrots while Rose's body was close by. And of course other farm workers also reported that the truck did not have an alarm to alert their workers when it was reversing and that this is definitely not the first time a worker was hit by one of these trucks.

Wernik: How are the farmers taking these situations? Are they just labeling them as accidents?

Echeverri: They feel dehumanized because it's like one farmworker gets in an accident, so ‘okay, we'll replace you with a new one.’ That's it– so happens.

It takes forever to conduct any investigation. Cal/OSHA, which is the agency that's supposed to handle this type of situation, is not really enforcing these policies that already exist.

How many families will have to lose their loved ones due to lack of regulation and support for our farm workers, right? We just have seen a really low rate of companies that have been penalized.

Wernik: How do these incidents highlight bigger problems with farm working conditions?

Echeverri: We see it as systemic discrimination. We know that many US labor laws that protect other workers include exceptions for farm workers, and this is definitely due to decades of policies rooted in racism and discrimination.

It's really necessary to improve agencies such as Cal/OSHA. They have a lack of staff that have the linguistic and cultural competence to protect farm workers.

We are currently talking to the agency, and we'll be asking for support for the changes that we are asking for in 2024. We also see among the farm workers, the lack of trust, fear of retaliation and concerns about reporting any lack of training. They don't know how to proceed or where to go to report these kinds of situations. Our farm workers are important, not only for our economy, but for our livelihood.

Wernik: How does CAUSE suggest the Central Coast community moves forward knowing about these tragic deaths?

Echeverri: So, CAUSE is educating farmworkers on their rights, supporting them to file complaints and request accommodations when needed, providing information about the regulations, and right now we are working specifically to improve Cal/OSHA because the most important change that we need to make is enforcing the regulation.

It will take a long time, but it is important to make it happen, and it is important that it happens soon.

KCBX Reporter Amanda Wernik graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo with a BS in Journalism. During her time at Cal Poly, she worked as a news anchor for KCPR Radio and as an intern for the CJ Silas Show on ESPN Radio. Amanda is currently a fellow with the USC Center for Health Journalism, completing a data fellowship that will result in a news feature series to air on KCBX in the winter of 2024.
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