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CHP Cracks Down on Farm-Labor Vehicles

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The operation was barely minutes old when California Highway Patrol Officer Randy Pickens swung into action, pulling over a minivan speeding through Oxnard stuffed with strawberry pickers late for the day’s harvest.

The van was packed with nine people. Few wore seat belts. Two had no place to sit and squatted on the floorboard amid a tangle of blue jeans and work boots.

In the predawn darkness, as the workers huddled against the cold and whispered their fears of the Border Patrol to each other, Pickens said through an interpreter that his only concern was to make sure their vehicle was safe and that they were wearing their seat belts.

“I know they’re just trying to get to work, but it’s too easy for them to become victims of circumstance,” Pickens said. “Even a minor accident, with that many people and no seat belts, isn’t going to turn out too good.”

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The 16-year veteran of the agency was part of a CHP strike force that pulled over several vehicles, including two stops in which officers impounded vans operated by unlicensed drivers that were crammed with workers made to sit on wooden benches and old milk crates lacking seat-belt protection.

The surprise inspections were part of a statewide enforcement campaign launched last year after 13 farm laborers were killed in a bloody crash on a rural road southwest of Fresno.

In the past five years, at least 63 farm workers have died in crashes on California’s roadways, prompting an outcry that resulted in groundbreaking legislation designed to improve the safety of vehicles that carry laborers to the fields.

A new law, by Assemblyman Dean Florez (D-Shafter), requires vans and buses that transport nine or more workers to be equipped with passenger seat belts by May 1 and receive annual CHP safety certification. Previously, such vehicles were exempt from the state’s 1985 mandatory seat-belt law.

And a companion bill, by Assemblywoman Sarah L. Reyes (D-Fresno), increases penalties for inspection violations and creates a program to educate growers and workers about the vehicle-certification requirements.

Under the Florez law, an additional $1.75 million was funneled to the CHP to hire more officers and beef up farm-labor vehicle enforcement.

Much of that effort has been centered in the Central Valley, where traffic fatalities run at a rate more than double the state average.

But Ventura County is starting to see some of those resources. This week, two officers from the CHP’s Conejo Grade station will take part in a weeklong training program designed to sharpen their vehicle-inspection skills.

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The officers will have plenty of opportunity to put those skills to use, as CHP officials pledge to continue their efforts to crack down on unsafe farm-labor vehicles.

“When we started doing them, we would catch three or four vans each morning stuffed with 14 or 15 people,” said Sgt. Kent Kilgore, a supervisor at the Conejo Grade station. “It seems to be changing now. Hopefully that means the word is getting out.”

Peak Harvest Time for Strawberries

This time of year, when Ventura County’s strawberry harvest races toward its peak, the back roads that crisscross the Oxnard Plain become clogged with farm workers.

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Some ride bicycles. Others walk to work. But most drive themselves or hitch rides to the fields, many cramming into the back of dusty and dented passenger vans and often paying $3 or $4 apiece for the pleasure.

It’s those vehicles Pickens is hunting this morning. He knows that to maximize profits, drivers often pack too many people into the back of their vehicles. And he knows that although there hasn’t been a major accident locally involving a farm-labor vehicle in recent memory, it could happen any time.

So when he spots the dark blue Ford minivan riding low and zipping through Oxnard, he flips on his red lights and pulls it over to the curb.

The harvesters explain they are late for work. Some admit that they are in the country illegally and worry that the Border Patrol will be next to arrive.

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Through an interpreter, Pickens tells them not to worry.

“We don’t want to be doing their [the Border Patrol’s] job for them,” he says with a smile.

Although the vehicle is not registered to the driver, he does hold an Oregon license. Pickens lets him off with a warning, but not before ordering the passengers to buckle up. He also makes the two workers who had no place to sit get out and wait for the driver to drop off his passengers and return for them.

Minutes later, he stops another van. This time, half a dozen strawberry workers are seated on blue milk crates in the back of the van. And the driver is unlicensed, uninsured and operating an unregistered vehicle with bald tires missing lug nuts.

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Pickens immediately radios for a tow truck.

“He wanted me to let him drive to the other side of the freeway,” Pickens said. “Not with my ticket in his pocket he won’t.”

The workers spill out of the back when they learn they will have to walk to work. Some head home, knowing they are already too late and worried they won’t have jobs the next day.

“I can’t see why they can’t just give the driver a ticket and let us go,” one of the passengers says. “How else are we supposed to get to work?”

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For farm worker advocate Santos Gomez, that question poses a dilemma. The lead attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance in Oxnard, he said he supports any effort to improve farm-worker safety.

But he worries that the CHP strategy, if enforced too vigorously and not tempered with an equal dose of community education, will end up hurting farm workers more than helping them.

“Obviously, anything the CHP does to address the issue is good,” Gomez said. “But I think the other issue here is that the obligation to provide safe transportation should be partly, if not exclusively, borne by the growers. They should not be allowed to simply transfer that responsibility to the workers.”

Labor attorney Rob Roy, president of the Ventura County Agricultural Assn., said most local growers got out of the transportation business long ago because of the expense and the state and federal regulations imposed on them.

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He said that if farm-worker advocates want growers to provide that service, they first should persuade legislators to offer tax breaks or some other kind of incentives to make it financially feasible.

Roy said there also are alternatives. He was in Sacramento last week meeting with officials on a proposal to create a fleet of state-certified vans for farm workers. Under the concept, the state would use grant money to purchase the vehicles and lease them to farm workers across California.

“I think there is concern on all sides for worker safety,” Roy said. “And I think that’s in the best interest not only of farm workers, but the public in general who use the same roads.”

Campaign Is Paying Off

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So far, the statewide enforcement campaign appears to be paying dividends.

CHP officials say they are finding fewer vehicles that violate seat belt or other safety laws.

And the public has also gotten involved, making use of a toll-free hotline established under Florez’s law to report the illegal operation of agricultural labor vehicles.

But the freshman assemblyman isn’t stopping there.

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This week, the Assembly is set to vote on new legislation that would outlaw the use of wooden benches in farm-labor vehicles and require all seats to face forward.

In the August 1999 incident near Fresno, farm workers were seated on carpeted, unbolted benches in the van, which was not equipped with seat belts.

Florez’s bill last year required those kinds of seats to be retrofitted with seat belts. Now, Florez is asking fellow lawmakers to require the vehicles to install factory seating by April 2002.

He said he hopes the bill will reach the governor’s desk by August.

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“Every year, since I was a kid, these kind of deaths have been a part of the harvest,” said Florez, a 37-year-old Central Valley native and son of farm workers who represents a food-rich region stretching from Fresno to Bakersfield.

“I don’t think there has been a sensitivity to the fact that in the agricultural family, it’s not just farmers but also farm workers,” he said. “The problem is we’ve ignored farm workers altogether. I just thought that had to change.”

At the CHP inspection station on the Conejo Grade, another man from a farm-worker family applauds the efforts. Oxnard native Raul Gomez, a civilian inspector at the station, also takes part in the CHP sweeps of farm-labor vehicles.

He said such efforts are essential to keeping workers safe.

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“What we’re after in the department is their safety in how they are transported to the fields,” Gomez said. “So far, we’ve been lucky. But we don’t want a Fresno incident happening down here.”


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