Secretary of Labor William Brock plans to direct state governments to enact regulations within 18 months giving farm workers the right to toilets in the fields, cool drinking water and a place to wash their hands, Reagan Administration sources disclosed Tuesday.
The decision was praised by agricultural organizations but criticized by public health experts, labor officials, migrant advocates and government officials who have been pushing for federal action.
Currently, only 13 states--including California--have field sanitation standards. The other 37 states have no laws requiring that agricultural workers be provided with toilets or water to drink or wash with. They are the only American workers without a legal right to such basic facilities.
More than 500,000 American farm workers suffer rates of infection comparable to those of Third World peasants because their employers refuse to provide them with toilets or water to drink or wash with, according to studies by public health experts commissioned by the Labor Department.
“We have concluded that there is an unnecessary health risk out there that has to be addressed,” said a source close to Brock, who is expected to announce his order today.
The source, who requested anonymity, said Brock had decided that “the best place to address the problem is at the state level.” He said that if states fail to act within 18 months, the federal government will intervene.
One Administration source said Brock’s decision acknowledges that some states already have field sanitation standards and that “states are different and have different needs as to this kind of circumstance.” The decision also reflects the Administration’s feeling that public health “is in many ways a state issue,” the source said, and is consistent with President Reagan’s “federalism initiative,” which gives more power to the states.
“We feel we have taken a balanced approach to the problem, one that will come across as thoughtful, decent and understandable,” said the source close to Brock.
“We’re pleased,” said Mark Maslyn of the American Farm Bureau Federation, which contends that no federal regulation is necessary.
Dr. Eugene Gangarosa of Atlanta’s Emory University, an expert on intestinal diseases who did a study of migrant health for the Labor Department last year, said, however, that he is disappointed by the decision. “The states simply have not followed through,” he said. Gangarosa said he will support federal legislation that Rep. William Ford (D-Mich.) plans to introduce in response to Brock’s decision.
A government source close to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration said there was “no justification” for Brock’s decision, citing medical testimony introduced at hearings that showed a clear need for federal action. “If there’s a need, what’s the justification for waiting?” asked the source, who requested that he not to be named. “I think it’s clearly a dilatory tactic. It’s a way not to look so bad, but to keep the thing on hold.”
Charles Horwitz, a lawyer with the Migrant Legal Action Program in Washington, which has been pressing the Labor Department to promulgate federal field sanitation standards since 1972, also criticized Brock’s decision.
“This is outrageous,” Horwitz said. “Every other worker in this country is protected by sanitations standards. Farm workers, who have the highest rates of infectious parasitic diseases, pesticide poisoning, heat-related problems and urinary tract infections, should have had these standards like all other workers. This Administration is acting against overwhelming evidence in the record.”
He also said the Reagan Administration has been inconsistent on the question of whether to get involved in public health issues. For example, he noted, in 1983, the secretary of labor issued federal regulations on how much information on toxic chemicals had to be disclosed to workers exposed to them. These standards superseded state laws that were more stringent.
“Now Brock is taking the opposite course and saying ‘we’re respecting states’ rights,’ ” he said.
Horwitz said he had hoped that Brock would overturn OSHA’s decision of last April to refrain from acting. This was the third rejection of federal field sanitation standards since 1972, when a rule was first proposed.
Under the standard that OSHA was considering, farm owners employing more than 11 people would have been required to provide suitable drinking water, toilets and hand-washing facilities. Robert Rowland, then the head of OSHA, said in mid-April that such a rule was unnecessary and could override tougher state laws already in place, a rationale that was criticized by migrants’ advocates. The decision triggered controversy in Congress, labor and religious circles.
At his confirmation hearing two weeks later, Brock told members of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee that he would review Rowland’s decision. When Brock was asked by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) whether he thought field workers should have toilets, pure drinking water and fresh water to wash in, he responded: “Yes, I do.”
Brock had meetings in June with representatives of labor, religious and migrant organizations about the issue. People who attended those meetings said they had the impression that Brock would advocate federal regulations.
Tuesday evening, Deborah Berkowitz, occupational safety and health coordinator of the AFL-CIO’s Food & Allied Services Trade Department, criticized Brock, who has had a relatively cordial relationship with organized labor since taking office in late April.
“We’re deeply disappointed at the failure of the Labor Department to implement these very basic protections,” Berkowitz said. “This is an indication the department is abdicating its responsibilities to protect worker safety and health.”
This source said “heavy resistance” to promulgating a federal standard had been brought to bear on Brock.
The source close to Brock said, however, that the 18-month time frame had been decided upon because it would give states two legislative sessions in which they could enact laws or regulations. He said the Labor Department would periodically review what the various states were doing.
He said it had not been decided how many states would have to be found out of compliance after 18 months before federal action would be warranted.