BURNHAM -- Francisco Muñoz's hands grabbed at unripe salad tomatoes as fast as they could, filling two buckets that together earned him $1.05.
Heat waves undulated overhead as he bent over to pick, raced to a truck to dump the buckets -- each 25 pounds -- then raced back to start again.
"I'm the champion. I can earn up to $20 an hour," Muñoz, 42, said in Spanish, his chest heaving, his face glistening with sweat.
The option of piece-rate pay allows a farmworker such as Muñoz to vault far above the $8 an hour state minimum that he and 200 other workers were guaranteed, no matter how fast they picked this field east of Stockton. But during heat waves, job safety specialists say, the piece-rate system may be contributing to laborers working -- or being worked -- to death.
Since May, half of the 12 heat-related job deaths under investigation in California have been of Latino farmworkers, four of them in jobs paying piece rate. The deaths are consistent with a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that documents a disproportionate number of crop worker fatalities.
The June report found that from 1992 to 2006, U.S. crop workers died from heat illness at a rate 20 times greater than all other workers, and 3½ times greater than construction workers.
The six farm fatalities in California from May 16 to
July 31 this year match the total farmworker death toll in 2005, the year California enacted emergency heat regulations to protect workers. The rules, which require shade and the right to rest breaks for those who work in the sun, were the nation's first.
Yet, even with Gov. Schwarzenegger supporting the rules and with outreach aimed at employers, workers have continued to die.
Gross negligence and persistent ignorance on the part of field supervisors and workers are to blame, said Len Welsh, chief of Cal-OSHA, the state's occupational health and safety agency.
Critics such as the United Farm Workers union also say the state has too few inspectors and hasn't punished violators enough.
Dr. Robert Harrison, a University of California at San Francisco occupational medicine expert, said there are more reasons.
Harrison served on the job safety standards panel that adopted the heat rules in 2005. He called them "path breaking" because they order every worker to be provided shade, specific amounts of water and heat-stress training in their native language.
Rest in shade required
But the rules were a compromise to gain support from industries and health and labor advocates, Harrison said. Their Achilles' heel may be their reliance on workers, not supervisors, to step forward, even in 100-degree-plus heat, and ask for an extra heat "recovery" break.
All workers in California, on any day, have the right to two 10-minute breaks and a lunch period. The heat recovery break is extra, and supervisors must allow it for at least five minutes in 100 percent shade.
Harrison said workers are unlikely to step forward if it means appearing weak or being scolded for falling behind in production quotas, which are common even for hourly wage workers.
"Do they feed their families, or protect their health? It's a choice someone shouldn't have to make," Harrison said.
"If they don't toe the line, then they're out of there," said Dr. Marc Shenker, who directs the University of California at Davis' Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety. "The reality is, rest is a luxury."
In the tomato field near Stockton, Muñoz's co-workers accused him, teasingly, of becoming a champion because he doesn't rest as much as others. "I eat well, and drink lots of sodas," he said, but "hunger for money" makes it hard to rest.
In the early 1990s, safety specialists with a now-defunct state-federal job safety project warned about the consequences of not ordering piece-rate workers to rest.
In a report filed with the National Ag Safety Database -- at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- investigators described the 1991 death of a melon worker who had worked four hours in 95-degree heat, filling and hauling 50-pound bags of fruit.
"Crews are paid by the number of trucks they load in a day, and so workers do not stop for breaks," the report observed of melon pickers. "If breaks had been encouraged and workers provided with an incentive to take them, then this death may have been prevented."
Money takes priority
In 2004, and again 2005, the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation pushed for a law to provide an incentive to rest. Both years, the Legislature approved the bill requiring employers to pay workers for piece-rate wages lost during 10-minute breaks.
More than 70 percent of harvesters said they worked through breaks to avoid losing money, a foundation survey found.
The governor vetoed the bill in 2004 and 2005, saying that piece rates already compensate workers for rest periods.
In 2006, the foundation backed a different bill that would have mandated 10-minute breaks every hour for outdoor workers when the heat index -- temperature, humidity and degree of heat rising from the ground -- reached levels considered dangerous. The bill died when the state's job safety standards panel made the 2005 heat rules permanent in 2006.
Martha Guzman, a foundation lobbyist, said it's time to think again. "When it's over 100 degrees, of course people need more breaks," she said. "Even the Army has rules on that."
The Army, in fact, calls heat-stress prevention a "command responsibility." Commanders use a heat-index tool to calculate the level of danger during a hot day, and then order soldiers to rest for however long a chart says is necessary. Those intervals can range from 10 minutes to
30 minutes per hour.
In 2005, Harrison recalled, he showed colleagues on the labor standards board how a $20 tool -- a heat pen -- could help field supervisors measure the heat index so they can require appropriate breaks.
Water saves lives
Welsh, the Cal-OSHA chief, said he doesn't think heat pens or more laws are needed to know it's hot and that it's time to follow the rules.
"It sounds terribly simple," he said, but the best way to save lives is for supervisors and workers to understand that drinking water is vital.
The state rules require employers to provide at least one quart of cold water per worker per hour and that supervisors encourage workers to drink it.
"I would be willing to bet that 70 percent of the deaths are from people not drinking enough water," Welsh said.
Maria Vasquez Jimenez, 17, died May 16, two days after falling ill in a vineyard in Farmington, east of Stockton, after nine hours with no shade and little water. Supervisors didn't get her to a clinic for 90 minutes, and they face $263,700 in fines and possible criminal prosecution.
The undocumented teen was paid $8 an hour to prune vines, was two months pregnant and not acclimated to field work in 100-degree heat.
Two other victims, however, were veteran field hands and legal immigrants, who, according to relatives, were in good health the days they labored in 106-degree temperatures.
Abdon Felix, 42, and Jorge Herrera, 37, were swampers, who often work in pairs, distributing boxes in vineyards at dawn, and loading them -- by tossing them onto trucks -- after other workers fill them with grapes.
Herrera's brother, Gerardo, said Jorge worked with another brother, earning as much as $250 a day, loading 3,000 boxes or more and splitting 15 cents per box.
"The companies don't want the fruit to sit in the sun," said Gerardo, who is also a swamper. "There are some supervisors out there, though, who care more about the fruit than the people."