My First “Introduction” to Cesar Chavez, Farmworker Advocate and Labor Leader

In March 1968, U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy joined Cesar Chavez and 8,000 farmworkers in Delano, CA, to end Chavez’s 25-day fast. Although I was young, the image of Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Chavez on T.V. was embedded in my mind. It was the first time I had heard about the hunger strikes and learned that some people in this country, particularly farmworkers, were not being treated fairly. It was my first introduction to the need for social justice.

U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and Cesar Chavez

Courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State

Now, I am an Assistant Administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and one of my responsibilities is to help ensure protections from pesticide exposure are in place for farmworkers. Two million farmworkers grow, tend and harvest our food. They deserve to be protected.

This week, the 15th annual Farmworker Awareness Week which concludes with a national day to commemorate the legacy of Cesar Chavez, we recognize the important contribution farmworkers make to our economy and our local communities.

Over the last two years, I have visited farm worker camps and farms across the country, including ones in Michigan, Florida, and North Carolina. I was struck by these things:

  1. Farmworkers work long strenuous days and long harvest periods, in heat and rain, and often rise before dawn and work after dusk.
  2. They experience pesticide exposure unlike other Americans. They apply pesticides and work in close contact with crops that still have pesticide residues. Think of scenarios like picking a tree’s fruit, engulfed in a trees leaves.
  3. They have very little safety training. Most farmworkers told me that they have not had safety training. Farmworkers are currently required to receive training every 5 years.(We are proposing to change it to annual training and improve it so workers fully understand the suite of protections afforded to them.)
  4. They feel vulnerable. They are worried about deportation or being fired if they complain. They don’t feel comfortable taking time off if made ill from pesticides or from any other health issue.

These reasons and others are why, last month, the agency proposed revisions to the Worker Protection Standard, updating the 20-year old regulation to provide more protections to farmworkers from pesticide exposure.

New proposed requirements include mandatory pesticide safety training every year, the addition of a “no entry” buffer areas of 25-100 feet around fields where pesticides are being applied, a first-time minimum age requirement for handling pesticides, mandatory posting of warning signs around treated areas for the more hazardous pesticides, mandatory record keeping for two years, and making information regarding pesticide hazards and their applications available to farm workers or their advocates. However, the proposed rule continues the exemptions for family farms.

The 90-day comment period ends June 17, 2014. We encourage you to comment on the proposal.

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