Hmong farmers hit by legislative setback

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Bill that would have let some growers forgo workers' comp is shelved.

Published online on Monday, Jun. 08, 2009

SACRAMENTO -- Valley Hmong leaders have suffered another setback in their drive to ease workers' compensation rules for small farms.

Southeast Asian groups were hopeful this year after several key union groups agreed to stay neutral on legislation as it moved through the Capitol. But the bill stalled and is likely done for the year after a legislative committee raised budget concerns.

Senate Bill 677, by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, would allow growers who make $10,000 or less each year to forgo workers' compensation coverage on certain family members. Valley immigrant advocates say low-income growers can't afford the premiums and are often unaware of regulations until they are fined.

The Teamsters and other influential labor groups agreed to withhold opposition after Yee added several provisions, including a requirement that farmers prove that exempted workers have health insurance.

The United Farm Workers union remained opposed, however, over concerns that the exemption would erode worker protections. Their argument appeared to carry weight with the Senate Appropriations Committee, which recently shelved the bill.

"We thought the bill was flawed in some serious ways," Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, who leads the committee, said in an interview Monday. "I get that they don't want to pay workers' comp -- but that's why it's there, so workers are protected in the fields and at the work site."

Also, the committee's analysis stated that if regulators accepted state-subsidized plans as proof of health insurance, that the costs to the programs "would be major and ongoing" as they picked up the tab for workplace injuries.

Yee is not giving up on the bill, but "in all likelihood" it is done for the year, said his spokesman, Adam Keigwin.

This year's attempt was more narrow than bills put forth in previous years. Of the state's 81,000 farms, only 7,000 make less than $10,000 a year and would qualify for the exemption, according to Yee's office. Registration would be capped at 3,000 farms. The exemption would cover any person employed by a parent, child, spouse or registered domestic partner.

While the legislation applies to all low-income farms in the state, it was championed by Fresno-area advocates for Southeast Asian growers.

The move for an exemption gained momentum in 2004 after a multiagency enforcement sweep of Valley growers led to fines of between $14,000 and $25,000 for various violations, including not having workers' compensation insurance. Several Hmong farmers stopped working their small plots for fear of being fined.

Fresno City Council Member Blong Xiong, who supports the bill, said the threat of fines is still a concern in the community.

"You can lose the family farm altogether," he said. "And then they go back to full-fledged [state social] assistance. We pay for it one way or the other."

The reporter can be reached at or (916) 326-5541.

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