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Sacramento Bee

Teen Farmworker's Death Stirs Outcry

Susan Ferriss

Until her death on May 16, Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was another undocumented farmworker at the bottom rung of California's farm production chain.0529 12

On Wednesday, nestled in a white satin coffin, the 17-year-old girl became to farm labor advocates more a symbol of what they say are secretive and abusive conditions in some of the state's orchards and vineyards.

California occupational safety authorities are investigating the girl's death in Lodi as a heat-related fatality. The United Farm Workers Union is calling her treatment an "egregious" violation of safety regulations put into effect three years ago after three farmworkers and a construction worker died of the heat.

"Maria's death should have been prevented," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.

Earlier in the day he met with the young woman's family at St. Anne's Catholic Church in Lodi after a funeral Mass. "This land gave us a lot of opportunity but gave her death. And we have to make sure this doesn't happen again," Schwarzenegger said.

Vasquez Jimenez and her fiancé, Florentino Bautista, were working in a vineyard east of Stockton on May 14 when she collapsed. The pair were employed by Merced Farm Labor contracting service out of Atwater.

In a phone interview, Merced Farm Labor safety officer Elias Armenta said, "We are really, really sorry" about the teenager's death. "Unfortunately, we cannot make any other comment."

Under rules enforced by Cal-OSHA, each worker is supposed to be provided one quart of water per shift. Employers are required to provide shaded areas and allow workers to take five-minute breaks as necessary to cool down. Bosses also have to train their supervisors and employees and have a written program ready for inspection if Cal-OSHA officials request one.

Cal-OSHA inspectors already have interviewed Bautista and others about the incident, said division spokesman Dean Fryer.

He said time is of the essence because "these are farmworkers, and they might move on."

Fryer said that employers who are found to have willfully violated heat laws can be fined a maximum of $25,000. The San Joaquin County District Attorney's Office will receive a copy of the division's report and can make a decision to prosecute.

When Vasquez Jimenez collapsed, she had been on the job three days, pruning vines for $8 an hour in a vineyard owned by West Coast Grape Farming.

During eight hours of work beginning at 6 a.m. in heat that topped 95 degrees, Bautista said that workers were given only one water break, at 10:30 a.m. And the water was a 10-minute walk away - too far, he said, to keep up with the crew and avoid being scolded.

Vasquez Jimenez collapsed at 3:30 p.m., Bautista said, and for at least five minutes, the foreman did nothing but stare at the couple while Bautista cradled her.

Bautista said the foreman told him to place the teenager in the back seat of a van, which was hot inside, and put a wet cloth on her.

Later, Bautista said, the foreman told a driver to take the pair to a store to buy rubbing alcohol and apply it to see if it would revive Vasquez Jimenez. When that failed, the driver took the couple to a clinic in Lodi, Bautista said, where her body temperature had reached more than 108 degrees.

"The foreman told me to say that she wasn't working for a contractor, that she got sick while exercising," Bautista said in Spanish. "He said she was underage, and it would cause a lot of problems."

Bautista and family members said that clinic staff rushed the girl to a hospital, where she was revived several times before finally succumbing two days later without ever regaining consciousness. Doctors later discovered she was two months pregnant.

UFW President Arturo Rodriguez delivered a eulogy in Spanish at the Lodi church Wednesday.

"What value does a farmworker's life have? Is it less than the life of any other human?" he said.

He announced that the UFW will join the family in a four-day march from Lodi to Sacramento in Vasquez Jimenez's honor starting Sunday. They will urge punishment for those responsible for her death.

Schwarzenegger, who strongly backed rules to prevent farmworker heat deaths, walked into the church Wednesday with Rodriguez.

Once inside, he placed his hand on Bautista's shoulder as the young man described Vasquez Jimenez, who was his sweetheart from the same Mixtec Indian town in Oaxaca, Mexico.

She wanted to earn money to send to her widowed mother, Bautista said. The couple planned to marry and return to Oaxaca in three years. She may not have known she was pregnant.

"I'm sure she was a good woman," the governor said. He walked over to gaze into Vasquez Jimenez's casket, where she was dressed in a white wedding gown and veil, a symbol of her dream to be a bride.

© 2008 Sacramento Bee

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