Published in Tri-City Herald on March 2, 2014:

OLYMPIA — When Phyllis Gutierrez-Kenney was a farmworker, eight months pregnant and working in asparagus fields with no toilets or water, she watched a fellow worker drown in an irrigation ditch, she said.

Maria Marfin has seen fruit pickers and pruners break limbs and backs falling from ladders, and farmworkers injured and killed in tractor accidents, she said.

Both women testified last week in support of House Bill 1072, which would create a grant program to improve labor skills and safety training for workers in Washington’s agricultural industry.

The bill, which passed the House on Feb. 14 in an 82-14 vote, received a public hearing in the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor.

The bill was referred to Ways and Means on Thursday, but won’t see any more action until this week.

Gutierrez-Kenney, a former House member and advocate for farm worker legislation who lived in the Tri-Cities for 21 years, said the bill will provide workers with safer working conditions, increase their productivity and improve safety records for employers.

“Sometimes we don’t look at the value of the farm workers in this state and what they extend to the health and economic status of this state,” she said.

More training is important not just for safety, she said, but for keeping up with advancements in technology.

That’s something that Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, agrees with.

Gempler told the committee that thousands of agricultural employees have some experience, but no formal training.

Employers want to hire workers they can trust to work alone, perform field maintenance and protect themselves and their equipment, he said.

“Employers want employees who’ve been trained on techniques to safely handle equipment on hills and ditches in less-than-ideal conditions,” said Gempler, who added that the program can help prevent tragic accidents while operating farm equipment.

Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, the bill’s primary sponsor, hopes the program will provide workers the skills they need, not only to retain their jobs, but to turn those jobs into careers, he said.

Difficulty in communication is another challenge. Marfin, a lifelong farmworker who traveled to Olympia from Granger, spoke to the committee through a translator.

Many farmworkers cannot read or speak English, and can’t read safety signs for pesticides or water and electrical hazards, she said.

Marfin’s translator, Gilberto Alaniz, is director of special projects for Sea Mar Community Health Centers. He told the Herald that some farmworkers drink and even bathe in irrigation water because they don’t have other available water sources and don’t understand pesticide dangers.

English classes for workers, as well as Spanish classes for managers and supervisors, would help alleviate communication problems, Alaniz said.

The program, called the Agricultural Labor Skills and Safety Grant Program, would be administered by the state Department of Commerce.

The department would award up to $750,000 per year to one grant recipient with a community-based organization.

That recipient would work with agricultural employee and employer organizations to carry out the program’s goals.

— Tri-City Herald intern Matt Benoit is a Washington State University student: 509-947-9277,; Twitter: @Matt_Benoit_