Poison Pill

Florida's first law to protect farm workers from pesticides died a quiet death, but now it's back

When Tania Galloni joined the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in September 2002, she faced a daunting task: to help protect Florida's agricultural workers from the myriad of dangerous pesticides to which they are exposed every day. Galloni was fresh out of Yale Law School, had just passed the Florida Bar over the summer, and had received a yearlong fellowship from a foundation at her alma mater to work at the Lake Worth-based nonprofit.

Her first step was to familiarize herself with the standards for the use of agricultural pesticides in her home state. (The 29-year-old grew up in Sarasota.) She knew Florida growers used more pesticides per acre than any of their counterparts elsewhere in the U.S., mostly because the climate in the Sunshine State is so hospitable to crop-eating bugs. She also knew the state government had a track record of being extremely responsive to agribusiness and less solicitous of the needs of the migrants upon whose labor that $6.4 billion business depends.

While reading one of the MFJP's reports, she came across a reference to 1994 state law that, among other things, required Florida growers to inform their workers of the health effects of chemicals applied to crops.

Galloni quickly discovered what no one else -- not the advocates who helped write the bill, not the lobbyist who guided it through the corridors of power in Tallahassee, not the legislators who sponsored it -- seemed to have remembered: The original bill had included a sunset clause, meaning that it had been set to expire in four years. In fact, the Florida Agricultural Worker Safety Act had been off the books since 1998. "I looked it up in the statutes, and I realized it wasn't there anymore," she says with a small laugh. "So I kind of had to work backwards from that."

She then broke the news to her boss. "I felt total dismay and amazement -- and somewhat guilty and sheepish," recalls Greg Schell, the managing attorney at the MFJP. "We goofed."

Galloni then went on to contact the other worker's rights groups that had made the bill happen in the first place. "People were shocked," she remembers. Once they got over their initial incredulity, however, these advocates quickly mobilized; they not only reintroduced the right-to-know law, but added a slate of other proposed farm-worker legislation.

The new right-to-know law would reestablish the stringent guidelines for pesticide notification set in the 1994 law. Right now in Florida (as before the original law took effect in 1995), the only rules regarding pesticides are Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules. Written in 1992, these standards require growers to provide only general precautions and medical information about pesticide applications, to provide that information in a central location like an office (rather than in the fields, where the workers would see them), and to offer detailed medical information only in the case of emergency.

"One of the biggest ironies, I think, about the federal law is the worker has a right to know about the health effects of a specific pesticide, in terms of antidote, first aid information -- after they've been poisoned by it," Galloni points out. "What the state law would do is give people the right to get that information before they get sick, and to get it directly. If the goal is to prevent pesticide poisoning, people need this information ahead of time, not at the hospital."

According to Schell, even the modest EPA rules were not being vigorously enforced -- either before the 1994 Florida law was passed, or after. The MFJP has compiled two detailed reports on the department's pesticides program, one in 1980 and one in 1998. "In the history of pesticides enforcement, virtually nobody has been fined," he states. "This is a toothless tiger that nobody is afraid of. Enforcement is placed in the hands of the Department of Agriculture, which is basically a fiefdom run by the growers. They view their clientele as being the growers, not the general population -- and certainly not farm workers."

Indeed, exposure to pesticides -- with all the attendant skin rashes, respiratory problems, and long-term health effects -- is just one of the myriad nightmarish conditions Florida's roughly 200,000-strong migrant and seasonal farm workforce faces. Schell notes that other, more immediate concerns -- the kinds of abuses that led to slavery convictions for three Florida farm labor contractors in 2002 -- usually trump pesticides in the minds of workers. Still, recognizing the need for tougher pesticide standards, a coalition of farm-worker advocates tried to get a version of the first bill passed in the 1993 session of the Florida Legislature.

"We lost in a big, big fight in the House of Representatives," says lobbyist Karen Woodall, who often represents farm-worker organizations. After this harsh lesson, Woodall says, her clients took a more collaborative approach the following year.

"The [1994] bill was the product of a work group that included representatives of industry, attorneys, advocates, farm workers, and legislators," Woodall says. "We went through a whole painful process, to reach the agreed-upon language." That wording also included the four-year sunset clause. "That was really comfort language for the growers," she says.

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