Farm Workers Say They Were Cropdusted With Pesticides
Law360 (December 3, 2020, 8:59 PM EST) — More than 20 migrant workers and their children sued a group of agricultural companies on Wednesday for repeatedly spraying the workers with pesticides during a corn-pruning operation and then dismissing their injuries.
In two incidents in the summer of 2019, the workers say, they were sprayed multiple times on Illinois corn fields overseen by Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., a subsidiary of the agribusiness giant Corteva Inc.
One afternoon that July, the workers had filed out onto the last field they were supposed to be pruning, according to the complaint. PHI had hired them to remove a pollen-bearing tassel from the head of each plant, a process known as detasseling. It is done to prevent unwanted cross-pollination.
“It was a clear day, the corn was still shorter than most of the workers, and the workers were wearing their neon orange hats and backpacks,” the complaint says.
An unidentified crop-dusting helicopter then flew overhead and doused them with pesticides. The workers say the pilot could clearly see them. Nevertheless, PHI “provided no emergency medical assistance, decontamination measures, or instructions to the workers about rinsing or washing themselves, and offered no transportation to a medical facility,” the suit says. The workers had eye, skin and throat irritation and had trouble breathing
They were then told to board buses that would take them back to the hotels where they were staying, it says.
The workers are Texas residents who were recruited by husband-and-wife pair Fidencio and Arminda Salinas to work in the Illinois fields for, generally, $9.25 an hour, the complaint says. Many of the workers have been with PHI for over a decade. The complaint says the Salinases are PHI contractors who supervised them on the company’s behalf.
A couple of weeks later, a group of workers in a detasseling operation saw a crop duster “suddenly fly” toward them, this time identified as a plane owned and operated by the Illinois-based Farm Air Inc. and its affiliate Curless Flying Service Inc.
The plane flew so low and close to the workers that some of them could see the pilot, the suit says. Again, the plane sprayed a liquid and workers smelled “a strong, bad odor,” according to the complaint.
Just as before, the workers say immediately had eye, skin and throat irritation and had trouble breathing.
Although some workers were able to rinse off after the exposure, they were ordered to return to the field after just 15 minutes of recovery, the suit says.
The complaint says the workers were assured that “it was safe to return.” But after they reentered the field, the Curless plane flew over and sprayed the workers once more.
“Workers in the field began yelling, and those outside the field began honking their horns, to alert everyone to flee once again,” the lawsuit says. “PHI did not offer any other transportation to a hospital or medical facility to any workers, or provide workers with names and locations of health facilities or hospitals where they could receive care.”
The complaint alleges that Fidencio Salinas directed the buses to return to the hotels instead of a hospital because “PHI would have medical staff there to treat sick workers,” but there were no medical staff there.
One of the sickest workers, 18-year-old Adrian Perez, had to have a relative call an ambulance to take him to a hospital. Others were driven to hospitals for treatment.
The suit says two PHI employees, field operations manager Brandon Gillen and safety supervisor Dylan Haun, interfered with the emergency care at the hospitals.
Gillen and Haun “falsely stated to medical personnel that the plane had not sprayed the workers,” according to the suit, which further says Haun pushed the workers to obtain medical releases that would allow their return to the fields.
“We believe the claims made are inaccurate, without merit and we intend to vigorously defend against them,” Corteva told Law360 on Thursday. “The circumstances surrounding the aerial application by another company were investigated by the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and it was determined that no violations occurred. Safety is at the center of everything we do and is a core value of our company.”
The Salinases and Gillen and Haun could not be reached for comment Thursday. Farm Air and counsel for the plaintiffs did not respond to requests for comment.
The suit alleges multiple violations of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, in addition to a host of claims such as negligence, battery and assault, and asks for statutory damages, compensatory damages, punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.
The workers are represented by Miriam Hallbauer, Lisa Palumbo, Mariyam Hussain and Lauren Dana of Legal Aid Chicago, Eugene Schoon of Reiter Burns LLP, Daniela Dwyer and Grace Kube of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and Howard Learner and Ann Jaworski of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.
Counsel information for the defendants was not immediately available.
The case is Garcia et al v. Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. et al., case number 20-03322, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois.
–Editing by Brian Baresch.
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