Pregnant 17-year-old’s death may lead to federal law protecting workers from excessive heat

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Just over 11 years ago, on May 14, 2008, Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, after toiling in excessive heat for three straight days picking grapes and hauling huge crates of them in the farm fields near Lodi, Calif., collapsed.

The pregnant 90-pound girl was earning money there to send back to her poverty-stricken family in Oaxaca, Mexico, says retired United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez. There was no water spigot for her to drink from, no shelter to retreat to when temperatures soared into the 90s and above, and no shade in the fields, even when she had time for lunch. She often didn’t. 

Jimenez paid for her devotion with her life. And, this July 11, her death came to mean something on Capitol Hill.

“She fell to the ground because of the heat,” Rodriguez told Press Associates Union News Service the day before a House hearing on a bill to try to prevent future heat deaths among farm workers, roofers, construction workers, highway crew workers and any other worker forced to toil under the hot summer sun.

“The foreman left her on the ground, then put her in the back of a hot flatbed truck,” Rodriguez continued. The foreman first planned to take Jimenez home, but her fiancée finally convinced him to take her to a nearby clinic instead. It was too late.

“She died the next day. Her body temperature was over 100 degrees. The doctors told us her organs were cooked,” Rodriguez said.

Jimenez died even though California, after lobbying by the Farm Workers and a long campaign by then-State Sen. Judy Chu (D), had the nation’s first-ever regulations on the books, since 2005, ordering growers and all other employers to protect workers against heat-related injuries and deaths.

Firms could protect the workers by such simple measures as providing shade, water, shelter and even cooling scarves workers could use to sponge their necks and hands – measures demonstrated at a July 10 outdoor press conference in D.C.’s sunny 90-degree heat.

But the farm labor contractor who brought Jimenez to those fields broke the state’s protective rules. The contractor later lost its license, but not before Jimenez’s death led UFW into another long campaign to enforce the regulations, including a 6-day march from Lodi to Sacramento, and a lawsuit.


The march and the litigation combined to force Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown to settle with the union and its allies in 2015. The settlement essentially makes worker reps, including UFW, the “eyes and ears” of enforcing heat protection rules in California’s fields.

“We could go out and monitor and check the conditions in the fields and make the reports to CalOSHA” – the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- when growers break the state rules, Rodriguez says. “We become the enforcement.”

After Jimenez’s death, and the ensuing uproar, CalOSHA’s heat protections have succeeded, Chu and Rodriguez say. “It’s encouraging to drive down Highway 5 and Highway 99 and see all the trailers” protecting workers from heat, he says. “It relieves this suffering,” she adds.

So Rodriguez, UFW, 130 other groups and their congressional allies want to take CalOSHA’s protections of workers from excessive heat and apply them nationwide. The need is there. Federal data show heat killed 783 farm workers alone from 2002-2016, and prostrated and injured 69,374 more. In 2008 in California, five more died after Jimenez, an UFW timeline of her case says.

The nationwide numbers back up Rodriguez, and Democratic Reps. Chu – who now represents Lodi and surrounding areas in the U.S. House -- Alva Adams of North Carolina and Raul Grijalva of Arizona. In 2017, the last year for which detailed data are available, 3.5 workers per 100,000 died on the job from all causes, the AFL-CIO’s latest Death On The Job report says.

But 23 of every 100,000 agriculture, fishing and forestry workers died -- the highest rate, by far.  

So Chu, Grijalva, Adams and their allies introduced the Asuncion Valdavia Heat Illness and Protection Act, memorializing another dead farm worker. It went before the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee, which Adams chairs. on July 11.  

The Farm Workers and a coalition of 130 other organizations, including Farmworker Justice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Public Citizen, are campaigning for it. Their measure would order federal OSHA to write a rule to force all employers nationwide – not just growers -- to protect their workers from excessive heat, and the deaths and injuries it causes.

“By putting an OSHA standard on the books, we can better protect our family members, friends and neighbors who work in high-risk environments and limit their exposure to dangerous heat,” says Grijalva, whose Tucson-based southern Arizona congressional district is one of the nation’s hottest.

“These are human beings. Yet every day when they go out in the fields, they risk their lives so we can have food on our tables,” Rodriguez told PAI. “I’ve been to too many funerals, and it’s hard to tell loved ones their relatives passed away because there wasn’t shade, shelter or water.”

And the heat problem for workers will only get worse as temperatures soar – and keep soaring – due to climate change warming the earth, warned Robert Wiseman of Public Citizen: “We now have 90-degree days in Alaska, and soon summers in Michigan will look like summers now in Phoenix.”

Farmworker Justice, the UFW and its allies formally petitioned the GOP Trump administration’s OSHA to write the rule protecting workers from heat, “but we got radio silence,” said Wiseman. “If it’s so devoted to a racist ideology or anti-immigrant zealotry” – because many farm workers and construction workers are Hispanic-named or African-American – “that it won’t act, Congress must.”



Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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