“Rape in the Fields” documentary chronicles sexual violence against women farmworkers

By Michael Marsh

I was born and raised just a few miles north of our country’s border with Mexico. As a teenager I often wondered what my life would have been like had I been born just a few miles south, which led me to become an attorney who assists low wage, Spanish-speaking employees in California.

Through my work I have learned firsthand that sexual harassment and assault against farmworker women, documented in “Cultivating Fear,” a 2012 Human Rights Watch report,  transcends borders. Every week approximately two women come to our small office in Salinas to complain about sexual harassment. This season we’ve already had three farmworker women report that they were sexually assaulted by their supervisors at work.

The shocking prevalence of sexual abuse against farmworkers is the subject of a new Frontline documentary, “Rape in the Fields.”  It  airs Tuesday June 25 on PBS and June 29 on Univision.

Michael Marsh

About Michael Marsh

Michael Marsh is Directing Attorney of the Salinas office of California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. His practice focuses on working with farmworkers to improve the quality of their working lives.

Eat healthy, for you and the farmworker who harvested your food 1

By Michael Marsh

Many of us buy organic vegetables and products when they’re available. We seek a healthy diet, and don’t want to expose ourselves or our children to residues from toxic pesticides which have been shown to build-up in our bodies.

But the principal reason that I buy organic vegetables isn’t to protect my family, it’s to protect farmworkers and their families. If I fear that eating minute residues of pesticides will damage my health, imagine what life must be like for a farmworker.

As an attorney for farmworkers, I am aware of the many problems they face–low pay, long work hours, back-breaking work, little respect, fear of deportation, and numerous health risks. Add to that pesticides. And not pesticides in the quantities that we consumers see. I’m talking pesticides in bulk!

In a recent opinion piece I wrote for Salinas’ daily paper, I discussed the dangerous pesticides facing farmworkers and farmworker communities today.  To give you just two examples, in Monterey County where I live, approximately 8 million pounds of pesticides are applied each year. Half of that amount is extremely toxic fumigants like chloropicrin and methyl bromide, which has been banned internationally but is still used in California. But that’s just a beginning. In Tulare county, approximately 25 million pounds of pesticides are used each year. That’s 55 pounds for each person living in the county!

Farmworkers work in fields that have been sprayed with pesticides and they work near fields that are being sprayed with pesticides. Then they go home to houses located near fields that have been treated with pesticides. And they bring pesticide residues home to their children in the form of dust and soil carried on their boots and clothes. Finally, unable to afford organic vegetables, they eat the same commercial foods with pesticide residues that the average consumer eats.

State and federal agencies do little to study, let alone protect farmworkers from the long term impact of these pesticides. There is a ray of hope, however. CHAMACOS, run by the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at U.C. Berkeley, is midway in a long-term study of the impacts of pesticides on farmworker women and their children. CHAMACOS has already shown a correlation between pesticide exposure and low birth weight and slowed child development, and they continue to study changes in practices that could reduce exposure to pesticides in farmworkers and their children.

California law requires that every employer provide employees with a safe and healthy workplace. Farmwork is no exception. For all of us who do not grow the food we eat, we owe it to farmworkers to oppose the use of dangerous pesticides such as chloropicrin.

Michael Marsh

About Michael Marsh

Michael Marsh is Directing Attorney of the Salinas office of California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. His practice focuses on working with farmworkers to improve the quality of their working lives.

Senate Bill 292 would restore protection for hostile work environment sexual harassment

For victims of sexual harassment,  whether the harasser is motivated by lust or hostility, or a combination of both, makes no difference.  However, one California Appellate Court departed from that traditional wisdom and ruled that in order for conduct to be sexually harassing, it must be motivated by sexual desire.

In his recent article for the Los Angeles Daily Journal, CELA VOICE contributor James DeSimone explains how Senate Bill 292 would restore protection to California employees who experience hostile work environment sexual harassment.

Jean Hyams

About Jean Hyams

Jean K. Hyams is a founding partner of Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams LLP, a Bay Area boutique law firm focused on representing employees in employment disputes. She left a career as a manager in high-tech companies to pursue her dream of becoming a civil rights lawyer. She has been named by Northern California Super Lawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Northern California for the past five years and her firm has been rated one of the Best Law Firms (Tier 1 – Employment Law) by U.S. News and World Report. After almost a quarter-century in practice, she now also serves as a court-appointed and private mediator of employment disputes. Jean is Co-Chair of the CELA VOICE.

Recent Supreme Court ruling on class action waivers in arbitration agreements draws fire

Last Thursday, the Supreme Court issued an opinion with a far-reaching impact on employees and consumers who sign mandatory arbitration agreements.  When those agreements include class action waiver provisions, victims of unfair business practices can no longer band together to seek redress.  In his post — Why Regular People Need to Pay Attention to the Supreme Court’s Arbitration Obsession: American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant Cries for Amending the Federal Arbitration Act – lawyer and blogger Bryan Schwartz covers the history of this issue at our nation’s highest court and sums up the holding like this –

Today, the Supreme Court (as Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent explains) held as follows, with respect to the fact that arbitration agreements with class action waivers effectively deprive victims of all legal recourse: “Too darn bad.”

The Atlantic Wire article — The Problem with the Supreme Court’s AmEx Decision, Class Action, and You —  summarizes the case and offers reaction from the author of an amicus brief arguing against class action waivers on behalf of an association of professional arbitrators.

Jean Hyams

About Jean Hyams

Jean K. Hyams is a founding partner of Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams LLP, a Bay Area boutique law firm focused on representing employees in employment disputes. She left a career as a manager in high-tech companies to pursue her dream of becoming a civil rights lawyer. She has been named by Northern California Super Lawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Northern California for the past five years and her firm has been rated one of the Best Law Firms (Tier 1 – Employment Law) by U.S. News and World Report. After almost a quarter-century in practice, she now also serves as a court-appointed and private mediator of employment disputes. Jean is Co-Chair of the CELA VOICE.

Welcome to the CELA VOICE!

Welcome to the CELA VOICE!

CELA VOICE is a project of the California Employment Lawyers Association.  Our goal is nothing short of changing the discussion about issues of importance to California employees.  Our method is simple.  We will amplify the voice of worker advocates on issues that are vital to our economy, our way of life, even our health.

The contributors to the CELA VOICE bring a unique perspective to understanding what is working and, too often, what isn’t working in California workplaces.  Because we are attorneys who represent employees in lawsuits, we spend our professional time probing how employment practices and management decisions can go so far awry that loyal employees feel they have no recourse short of the courtroom.  Working up our cases often takes us to the top levels of management and always requires us to learn about industry practices.  Over time (and many of us have been practicing for decades), we cannot help but recognize the trends.

Why is this perspective needed when plenty of bloggers are already out there ready to offer their opinion on controversies in the workplace?  After all, almost anyone who blogs or writes opinion pieces is a worker.  The answer is this — very few journalists or bloggers have the depth of access to information and the insider view that we gain every time we take a case on behalf of an employee.  (And, let’s face it, journalists can’t put their sources under oath.)  That being said, we share the journalists’ fealty to facts.  In trial, lawyers are forced to focus on the evidence and drop the speculation.  We have tasked our contributors to do the same, so that our readers can count on solid information and evidence-based opinions that should stand the test of cross-examination.  Indeed, not all of our contributors share the same perspective on all issues, so what you are reading is not any sort of “party line.”

Which are the industries where sexual harassment is commonplace?  How are employers using the “exempt” designation to force their employees regularly to work 80 hours a week without overtime?  What is being done to protect farmworkers from exposure to pesticides?  When whistleblowers step forward to report illegal practices, what really happens to them?  If you want to know the answer to these questions, just ask the lawyers who represented the workers.  Or, better yet, subscribe to the CELA VOICE!

Jean Hyams

About Jean Hyams

Jean K. Hyams is a founding partner of Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams LLP, a Bay Area boutique law firm focused on representing employees in employment disputes. She left a career as a manager in high-tech companies to pursue her dream of becoming a civil rights lawyer. She has been named by Northern California Super Lawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Northern California for the past five years and her firm has been rated one of the Best Law Firms (Tier 1 – Employment Law) by U.S. News and World Report. After almost a quarter-century in practice, she now also serves as a court-appointed and private mediator of employment disputes. Jean is Co-Chair of the CELA VOICE.

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