Protecting California Farm Workers

Munger, Tolles & Olson attorneys, working with Public Counsel and the ACLU as co-counsel, obtained a settlement that will protect farm workers and improve agricultural workplace safety in California. Announced by the United Farm Workers (UFW) labor union on June 10, 2015, the settlement comes almost six years after the original lawsuit was filed in July 2009 by the UFW and individual California farm workers against the State of California.

The settlement seeks to improve enforcement of California’s recently enhanced heat-illness-prevention regulations. The Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) agreed to improve inspections of outdoor worksites during heat waves and will take more meaningful action against repeat violators. The union will also now have the ability to report violations of heat regulations to Cal/OSHA under newly established procedures with clear guidelines for agency response. Confidential audits of heat standards enforcement will also be conducted to determine if investigations of complaints are being conducted in a timely manner.

Another result of the settlement is a pilot project aimed at improving heat-illness prevention enforcement by taking worker declarations during heat inspections.

The Munger Tolles team included Bradley S. Phillips, Stuart N. Senator and Benjamin J. Maro.

“Overall the settlement will make farm workers safer—that is our hope and the state’s hope,” said Mr. Phillips in an interview with the Associated Press.

The settlement is the product of two lawsuits, filed in 2009 and 2012, that accused the state of failing to protect farm workers in California’s fields, where they were denied access to water and shade while working in extreme heat in spite of state regulations intended to protect workers from heat illness. While the state estimates that 14 farm workers died from heat-related illness between 2005 and 2013, the UFW estimates that closer to 30 workers, one of whom was 17 years old, died in that time.