Farmworkers and the law

Without protective gear, an immigrant nursery worker in Florida was directed to move trees dripping with pesticide. He began to experience acute pesticide exposure symptoms-vomiting, foaming at the mouth-then suffered a stroke and slipped into a coma for several weeks. An investigation confirmed that the nursery sent workers to handle the trees just 30 minutes after the application of chlorpyrifos, a highly toxic pesticide, even though a waiting period of 24 hours should have been observed.

Tania Galloni '95 is working to eliminate such incidents. An attorney with Florida's Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, Galloni represents workers who have been exposed to pesticides on the job. Often they are at a double risk, she says, not only working amidst pesticides but also living near treated areas. Compounding their situation is a lack of safety training and knowledge about the symptoms of exposure; a reluctance to report exposures and violations for fear of losing their jobs; and language and economic barriers to healthcare. To boot, many employers fail to provide emergency assistance or report pesticide-related illnesses and injuries to their workers' compensation carriers.

Galloni reports complaints of violations of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations called the Worker Protection Standard (WPS). "The victories, in a way, have been small," she says. "So few people are willing to come forward and file a complaint, but it's still a major and visible problem. I've been working to help individuals file complaints and to really raise the issue in the minds of people around the state, trying to get other communities to take the initiative to report exposures and file these cases so that this problem comes out of the shadows." A complaint by even one person can cause an employer to change its practices and come into compliance with safety regulations.

In Florida, the state Department of Agriculture is charged with the responsibility of protecting workers from pesticide exposure by implementing and enforcing the WPS. But the commissioner of agriculture is a rancher, and key committees in the legislature are dominated by agricultural employers. "It's a very difficult political climate in which to get things done," Galloni says. "Agriculture in Florida is so powerful." And while she recognizes that the industry is important to the state's economy, she laments that the issue of health-"the very real risk that a lot of these chemicals pose to workers"-has been neglected.

One major challenge is instituting a worker's right to know health and safety information about specific pesticides, Galloni says. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) right-to-know law does not apply to pesticide use in agriculture. The EPA regulations do not provide the right to know except after a poisoning, and Florida's legislature failed to reinstate a right-to-know law several years ago. "It would not be illegal for an employer to fire a farmworker who asks for this information," she says. "It's shocking to realize that workers don't have this right in Florida now. The reality is that the vast majority of farmworkers have no idea what chemicals are used where they work, much less what the specific health effects are. So we have this huge, huge void."

The state of Florida has given its Department of Health no power to do anything other than keep statistics and classify reported exposures, Galloni says. "We really need to see the Department of Health take a more proactive role in ensuring that workers are safe. Florida has no state labor department to be protective of farmworkers' health and safety when it comes to pesticides."

Abuses involving labor, politics, and immigrants are not new to Galloni. As a Bryn Mawr sophomore she was president of Mujeres, a student group concerned with issues affecting the Latino community. Galloni helped to bring Dolores C. Huerta, cofounder of United Farm Workers of America (UFW), to campus during an awareness week on the dangers of pesticides and the plight of migrant farmworkers. Mujeres successfully campaigned for the student body and the dining halls to boycott California table grapes in conjunction with the UFW's national campaign.

"The sociology department at Bryn Mawr totally changed my life," Galloni says, calling SOC 102 among the most rigorous courses at the College. "Judith Porter, Professor of Sociology, opened my eyes to problems that I might only have been tangentially aware of and really forced me to think about very pressing issues. The class was an inspiration to me about being part of a solution to the problems in the world." After graduation she worked as a union organizer with textile workers in Canada, poultry processing workers in Mississippi, and healthcare workers in Connecticut.

Because of Galloni's keen interest in the intersection of labor and immigration, Yale Law was an exact match. She focused on political asylum issues for five semesters in Yale's Immigration Clinic. She also participated in summer exchange programs with law schools in Chile and Brazil. A fellowship from the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program (directed by Judith Resnick '72) then brought her to Florida Legal Services, the non-profit organization of which The Migrant Farmworker Justice Program is a part. Galloni chose to hone in on pesticide issues, knowing "it was an area in Florida that nobody had the resources or time to pay attention to."

Now, however, with Galloni helping to lead the charge, that situation is changing.

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