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Effects of Pesticide Exposure and Workers’ Compensation Laws

Agriculture is one of the United States’ most hazardous occupations, with a fatality rate estimated at nearly six times that of other industries. In addition to the high risk of injury and strenuous work, agricultural workers are exposed to harmful pesticides more frequently than any other segment of the U.S. population.

Workers’ Compensation remedies are generally the only recourse farmworkers have against their employers for exposure to pesticides, as a work-related injury. However, since many U.S. farmworkers are undocumented immigrants, their right to collect Workers’ Compensation benefits has been a heavily contested issue.

Harmful Effects of Pesticide Exposure

Weeding, irrigating, harvesting, transporting and storing crops can bring agricultural workers into direct contact with pesticide residue that can be absorbed through contact with plants or soil. In addition, workers may inhale toxic, airborne pesticide particles from nearby aerial spraying.

Acute pesticide poisoning can cause:

  • Rashes
  • Eye irritation
  • Irritation of the upper respiratory tract

Chronic effects of pesticide exposure are more difficult to evaluate, but various studies on animals indicate an increased risk of:

  • Malignant tumors
  • Sterility
  • Leukemia
  • Lung cancer
  • Testicular cancer
  • Birth defects
  • Miscarriages

Workers’ Compensation Remedies for Farmworkers

Workers’ Compensation law is largely a creation of state law, so its scope and benefits vary from state to state. Florida, Texas and New York are among the states with limitations that distinguish farmworkers from non-farmworkers, only providing compulsory Workers’ Compensation coverage for certain classes of agricultural workers.

Some jurisdictions treat farmworkers like all other workers. For example, California and New Jersey provide farmworkers with coverage theoretically identical to all other workers. In fact, a 2002 California court holding suggests a tendency toward favoring farmworkers over other workers when it comes to awarding Workers’ Compensation benefits in some circumstances.

Ruling in favor of the injured farmers in that case, the Worker Compensation Appeals Board exempted farmworkers from the rule that has traditionally prevented commuters from collecting Workers’ Compensation benefits. Specifically, the court held that the commute of 15 tomato pickers was covered under Workers’ Compensation, allowing the families of the 13 farmworkers killed in an automobile collision on their way home from work (and the two survivors) benefits totaling more than $2 million. Although the injuries at issue in this case were unrelated to pesticide exposure, the award of Workers’ Compensation benefits to the injured farmworkers and their families is noteworthy, as an indicator of the court’s increasing sympathy for a frequently neglected class of employees.

California’s Workers’ Compensation Reform Package

However, California’s 91-year-old Workers’ Compensation program recently became much stricter (with potentially detrimental implications for injured farmworkers) under the Workers’ Compensation Reform Package, signed into law by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on April 19, 2004.

Prior to the passage of this bill, California’s system was one of the most generous in the nation, in terms of the types of industries and employees covered (including up to 900,000 farmworkers). According to the terms of the new legislation, certain employees will have a more difficult time collecting Worker’s Compensation benefits. Beginning January 1, 2005, employees will have to prove their injuries using medical tests such as X-rays or MRIs in order to collect benefits. This requirement could be particularly harmful to California’s farmworkers, most of whom experience job-related injuries such as back pain that are not easily detected by the proscribed diagnostic tools.

The Workers’ Compensation Rights of Undocumented Workers

As many farmworkers are illegal aliens, another challenge injured farmworkers might have to face in the arena of employment rights is citizenship status. While undocumented workers qualify for Workers’ Compensation benefits in most states, employers and insurance carriers have consistently challenged their eligibility.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court made a trend-setting decision affecting the employment rights of undocumented workers in Hoffman Plastic Compounds v. NLRB. Specifically, the Court held that undocumented workers are not entitled to back pay awards, even if illegally fired for their participation in union activities. Following the Hoffman decision, the rights of undocumented workers to receive Workers’ Compensation benefits have also been met with significant amounts of scrutiny. However, many states, including Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, have found that Hoffman does not prevent injured aliens from collecting Workers’ Compensation benefits.

Given the diversity of state-based Workers’ Compensation laws, historical changes in legislation, and the heavily challenged employment rights of undocumented workers, farmworkers injured from exposure to pesticides should contact their state Workers’ Compensation board to determine the extent and nature of local coverage.

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