In the nation’s first criminal prosecution involving the heat-related death of a farm worker, a plea agreement has resulted in small fines, probation and community service time for two supervisors. Seventeen-year-old Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez was overcome while pruning grapes for nine hours in 100-degree heat in a California vineyard in 2008. She was two months pregnant.
Maria De Los Angeles Colunga, owner of Merced Farm Labor, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of failing to provide shade. She must perform 40 hours of community service, serve three years’ probation and pay a $370 fine.
Colunga’s brother, Elias Armenta, the company’s safety director, pleaded guilty to a felony count of failing to follow safety regulations that resulted in death. He must perform 480 hours of community service, serve five years’ probation and pay a $1,000 fine.
The plea deal also bans both from ever working again in farm labor contracting.
Farm worker advocates say the two should have been sentenced to jail time and that the plea agreements could undermine California’s first-in-the-nation law that requires shade and water for outdoor employees working in high heat.
Prosecutor Lester Fleming said he agreed to the plea bargain because trying the case would likely result in the same outcome. Fleming says it was hard to find witnesses because most farm workers don’t speak English and many are in the country illegally.
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