Occupational Health News Roundup

At Eater, Elizabeth Grossman reports that Democratic lawmakers have introduced legislation that would protect undocumented agricultural workers from deportation and provide them and their families with a path to long-term residence and citizenship.

The bill proposes that farmworkers who can prove at least 100 days of agricultural work in the last two years could apply for a “blue card” that grants temporary residency and the ability to work. Farmworkers with a blue card and who work for 100 days a year for five years or 150 days a year for three years would then be eligible for a green card or permanent legal resident status. The spouses and children of blue-card holders would also be eligible for the program. Grossman writes that the proposal has the support of both workers and employers. She writes:

Undocumented farmworkers are the backbone of the United States’ agriculture industry, a situation that has long posed numerous challenges for these workers, their families, and employers. But the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policies and aggressive Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) action — which has detained farm workers in New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere — has created a climate of fear among workers. And that’s already resulting in labor shortages that are prompting some growers to curtail harvest plans.

On call with reporters, Monterey Mushrooms president and owner Shah Kazemi confirmed the labor situation. “We’re currently short hundreds of workers,” he said. “We have been forced to cut back our production because people are not showing up to work out of fear. “If we don’t have a way to fix our broken immigration system, I don’t think agriculture can survive in this country,” said Kazemi.

Continue reading at Eater.

In other news:

Washington Post: Juliet Eilperin, Emma Brown and Darryl Fears report that the Trump administration is planning to gut the U.S. Department of Labor division that ensures federal contractors abide by nondiscrimination laws as “part of wider efforts to rein in government programs that promote civil rights.” In particular, the plan would fold the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs into the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), even though the two units have very different roles. The reporters writes: “Unlike the EEOC, which investigates complaints it receives, the compliance office audits contractors in a more systematic fashion and verifies that they ‘take affirmative action’ to promote equal opportunity among their employees. Patricia A. Shiu, who led the compliance office from 2009 to 2016, said the audits are crucial because most workers don’t know they have grounds to file a complaint. ‘Most people do not know why they don’t get hired. Most people do not know why they do not get paid the same as somebody else,’ she said.”

Denver Post: In the wake of an oil tank explosion that killed one worker and injured three others, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper says he will “take any necessary action to ensure this doesn’t happen again.” John Ingold reports that state oil and gas regulators have asked oil company Anadarko to conduct a “root cause” analysis of the explosion — a request that state regulators rarely make. OSHA says it’s investigating the explosion. Anadarko already faces lawsuits related to a different explosion earlier this year. That explosion was the result of gas seeping from a cut underground flowline, killing two people and seriously injuring another. Ingold writes: “At least 51 other workers have died in the state’s oil and gas fields since 2003, a Denver Post investigation last year found. When those deaths occur, an interlocking set of laws and regulations often keep companies from facing severe penalties, the Post found.”

BuzzFeed News: Caroline O’Donovan reports that Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., has introduced the first piece of federal legislation addressing the lack of benefits for on-demand workers. More specifically, the bill would create a $20 million fund that organizations could use to build portable benefits programs — benefits that independent contractors could ideally bring with them from gig to gig. The article notes that some states have proposed similar legislation. For example, Washington state lawmakers are considering a bill that would require on-demand employers contribute a certain percentage of profits toward a benefits fund. O’Donovan writes: “Warner, who estimates that currently a third of the US workforce falls outside traditional employment and predicts that figure will increase to 50% by 2020, said his goal is to get people to break out of the ‘mindset that...the only way you got benefits was if you're a full-time, permanent employee.’”

Charlotte Observer: In some good news for workers, Joe Marusak reports that North Carolina’s Unicon Inc. has paid nearly $600,000 in back wages and an equal amount in damages to more than 800 workers who round up and transport chickens to poultry processors. The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division had previously found the company violated federal overtime and record-keeping rules, automatically deducting pay for lunch breaks that workers didn’t actually take and failing to pay workers for the prep and cleanup involved in rounding up chickens. Marusak reported that Mark Watson, a regional administrator with the Wage and Hour Division, said: “This agreement goes a long way to ensure that Unicon’s workers are made whole by providing the wages they earned. It also levels the playing field for other employers in this industry.”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years. Follow me on Twitter — @kkrisberg.

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