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Why Lawmakers Are Questioning California Workplace Safety Agency

Published on Sunday, February 11, 2024 | 5:17 pm
 

Last year during “hot labor summer,” unions, worker advocates and their supporters in the Legislature pushed, often successfully, for wage increases and more benefits.

This year, they’re focusing more on enforcing worker protections.

That was the message from an Assembly Labor Committee hearing on Wednesday, where farmworkers and their advocates complained that Cal/OSHA, the state’s workplace safety agency, isn’t doing the job, explains CalMatters’ Jeanne Kuang.

The farmworkers described working in extreme heat and being exposed to pesticides — and slow responses from Cal/OSHA if they overcome fear of retaliation from their bosses to report a safety violation. There were even allegations that employers get tipped off to inspections.

Acting Cal/OSHA chief Debra Lee responded that she was “very concerned” to hear inspectors might be informing employers of upcoming inspections. She also said that her agency plans to start a unit focused on safety in agricultural work, with a hotline in multiple languages for workers and advocates to report violations.

Still, all of that was enough for the committee’s chairperson, Liz Ortega, a Democrat from Hayward, to declare that she’ll seek an audit of the agency.

  • Ortega: “I don’t want the agency failures to be conveniently whitewashed by the current budget deficit. Many of the stories and the data that we have today is what happened when we had billions of dollars in surpluses.”

One problem may be staffing. Cal/OSHA is part of the state Department of Industrial Relations, which is struggling with high turnover and vacancies.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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