Florida is No. 2 in nation in farmworker vehicle deaths
Published: Saturday, January 8, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 7, 2005 at 10:33 p.m.
FORT PIERCE - Jose Luis Garcia Pichardo never wanted his 8-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son to lack anything. So he left his hometown in central Mexico three years ago to work picking oranges and grapefruit in Florida. He sent money to his wife, and saved toys, clothes and shoes to take back to his children.
But Garcia Pichardo never returned home.
He was killed last spring when a speeding, overcrowded van he was riding in rolled over on Interstate 95 in Fort Pierce, also taking the lives of eight other migrant workers. None of the passengers wore safety belts.
An Associated Press review of state and federal records found transportation-related accidents to be the leading cause of work-related deaths for Florida's farmworkers, responsible for 83 fatalities and more than 400 injuries since 1992. Only California, which has more farm laborers, has had more such deaths during the past decade.
Farmworker advocates say changing Florida law to mandate seat belts in farmworker vehicles and stepping up enforcement would significantly reduce deaths on and off the highways.
Florida has one of the nation's largest migrant farmworker populations, estimated at between 150,000 and 300,000 men and women. Many are illegal immigrants who don't speak English and can't drive themselves because they lack a car or driver's license. They often don't check to see if the vehicles they get into have been insured or inspected as required by law.
"I don't know if the driver has a license because I never ask," said Roberto Perez, a 30-year-old tomato picker in Lake Worth. "The only thing I'm thinking about is getting work."
Among the problems regularly found in farm labor vehicles were no seat belts, rusted-out holes in the floorboards, cracked windows, doors that don't open and seats that have been torn out, according to an AP review of 878 citations issued by the state from January 1997 to March 2004.
In the past, the state agencies that regulate farm labor safety in Florida have taken transportation problems less seriously than other violations when it comes to punishment, the AP review found.
Until this year, state agencies generally fined farm labor contractors only a few hundred dollars for transportation violations, while other violations such as child labor and delinquent taxes resulted in revoked licenses or fines into the thousands of dollars.
In fact, during the time period reviewed by the AP, not one farm labor contractor had a license revoked by the state for driving-related violations. In a new get-tough approach since March, the state has taken the licenses of three contractors and issued fines of several thousand dollars for driving violations.
The U.S. Department of Labor, the federal agency that regulates farm labor, said it doesn't maintain data in a way that would show how many contractors in Florida have lost their licenses for transportation violations. But the federal agency has traditionally issued tougher fines for transportation problems. As recently as May 2003, the federal agency won a $3,200 payment from a contractor whose driver didn't have a proper license or vehicle insurance.
Florida compliance officials say that until this past year they had inadequate resources to crack down on the farm labor contractors who regularly broke transportation laws. Those laws prohibit overcrowding, require drivers to have licenses, and vehicles to have insurance and proper inspections.
Oversight began to improve in 2002, officials say, when the Department of Business and Professional Regulation took control of farm labor from the state Department of Labor. Among the changes was the creation of an electronic database of offenders.
"There was poor case management, inconsistent enforcement actions. Follow-up was inconsistent, lackadaisical and sometimes nonexistent," said Mark Whitten, who until November was head of the division that oversaw farm labor for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
Still, farmworker advocates say there aren't enough compliance officers to make sure the state's thousands of farm labor contractors are following the law. The state has 28 compliance officers, while the federal agency has 75 inspectors in Florida to monitor 3,200 registered farm labor contractors.
Some advocates say there's a surefire way to reduce the number of deaths and injuries in Florida: mandate seat belts for farmworker vehicles the way California does.
Florida law currently exempts the mandatory use of seat belts for buses and vehicles that weigh more than 5,000 pounds, like many vans, although all front-seat passengers must use them. California lawmakers ended a seat belt exemption for agricultural vehicles in 1999 after an accident involving an overcrowded van killed 13 farmworkers. The following year, for the first time since 1992, there were no highway deaths resulting from farm labor vehicle accidents.
"It has made a big difference as far as fatalities and injuries," said Officer Dan Aguirre, who works in the California Highway Patrol's farm labor vehicle program.
Florida growers would only support a mandatory seat belt law if applied to all similar vehicles in other industries, said Ray Gilmer, a spokesman for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. "You can't single out agriculture," he said.
Many contractors have seen their pay from growers squeezed in recent years. Sometimes cutting corners is the only way they can survive.
"It has gone from bad to worse. Instead of paying us more, they pay us less," said Lupe Romero, supervisor at Romero Harvesting in Okeechobee. The farm labor contractor has been cited seven times by the state since 1997, including four driving-related citations.
Dan Richey, president of Riverfront Groves in Vero Beach, said growers are concerned about farmworker safety, but it's ultimately up to the labor contractors.
"All we can do is encourage," said Richey, a former chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission. "There is nothing we can do to legally enforce it."
Both federal and state agencies regulate the contractors. But some farmworker advocates say the federal migrant farmworkers law - which also covers growers - isn't enforced adequately, while the state law falls short because it doesn't apply to growers.
"If you made (the growers) strictly liable . . . there would be a sea change in agriculture," said Greg Schell, an attorney for the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Lake Worth."There would be fewer vehicle accidents, less severe accidents and people, when they did get injured, they would have medical care available to them."
Like 37-year-old Garcia Pichardo, many come to the United States for the promise of a better life. The van he was riding in was designed to hold 15 people but 19 workers were jammed in at the time of the April accident. Most of them were thrown out of the vehicle when it rolled over.r, their bodies scattered on the highway and a grassy median.
The Florida Highway Patrol blamed the accident on the van's driver, Salvador Leon, who survived with serious injuries.Leon received a traffic citation and paid a $150 traffic fine. He also lost his farm labor contractor license and paid a $3,000 penalty to the state.
Leon was driving for Circle H Citrus, a citrus harvesting and hauling company owned by George Pantuso, who last year was appointed to the Florida Citrus Commission. Pantuso was fined $38,000 by the U.S. Department of Labor for that accident and another incident.
Pantuso, who has appealed the fine, didn't return phone calls seeking comment.
Several survivors and family members of those killed in the crash, including Garcia Pichardo's widow, have sued Leon, Circle H and Ford Motor Co., the maker of the van.
Garcia Pichardo had expressed concerns to his wife about the vehicles that he was riding in to work. She said he did not want to complain because he needed the work.
Juana Lucero Landin Luna de Garcia, his 28-year-old widow, now is getting by with help from relatives and by selling candy and gum outside the family's home.
"The children ask to talk to their daddy but of course they can't," she said by telephone from Guanajuato in central Mexico. "I don't have any words to console my children."
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