In the shade of leafy trees, migrant farm workers stood on ladders Tuesday morning, filling buckets with juicy cherries.
It was like many days in the past few weeks, but with one obvious exception: Men and women with notepads and state identification badges moved through the trees, asking the workers about wages and water.
The visit by state labor and health inspectors was one of many playing out Tuesday throughout San Joaquin County as part of an unannounced enforcement sting. Employers found to be violating state laws, whether they didn't provide enough toilets or hired juveniles without work permits, will likely face fines.
"Every week we're going somewhere in the state, making sweeps," said David Dorame, director of the Economic and Employment Enforcement Coalition, part of the state's labor agency.
From San Diego, where Dorame's office is based, to the Oregon border, employees pay surprise visits to seven different fields of work: agriculture, restaurants, construction, car washes, garment manufacturing, pallet work and auto body shops.
Tuesday's sting focused on agriculture work. Visits are planned out roughly a year in advance, said John Duncan, director of the Department of Industrial Relations.
In other words, the operation was in the works before last month's heat wave, during which a 17-year-old Lodi girl died after working a full day in a Farmington vineyard.
"We just don't want this to repeat itself," Duncan said. "Employers need to know their fundamental responsibilities."
Three years ago, California became the first and only state in the nation to pass heat standards, meaning that employers must take more steps to protect their employees.
Whether the workers are in the country legally is not a matter the state workers address during such sweeps, partly because that's a federal matter, but mainly because the focus is on employer standards, Duncan said. If employers hire workers, they must look out for them.
On Tuesday, Duncan quickly spotted a water jug among the trees, but investigators looked for more water - at an outdoor work site, employers must provide at least one quart of water per hour, according to state law.
Labor enforcement employees interviewed the workers, asking how much money they made and whether they were given the tools needed for the job. They soon learned that the workers had to buy their own $25 buckets, which hang from a strap around the neck; the employer will have to reimburse them, said Dean Fryer, spokesman for the industrial relations department.
As far as labor laws go, Dorame said, a few issues needed to be resolved there, too.
Employees, interviewed separately, told investigators that they work seven days a week at regular pay and rarely take breaks, Dorame said. By law, a seventh day of work must be paid double time, and employees must take breaks.
One of the workers recently turned 17 and did not have a juvenile work permit, which is another violation, Dorame said.
The employees work for a labor contractor, who was not at the scene Tuesday. About 50 employees continued to toil in the relatively cool morning hours, which were a marked contrast from a heat wave in mid-May.
During that heat wave, three people died of what investigators believe were all heat-related causes, though all are still under investigation.
On May 15, an employee died at a manufacturing plant in southern California. On May 16, someone died at an oil drilling business in Kern County.
And also on May 16, 17-year-old Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez died two days after collapsing in a San Joaquin County vineyard. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger attended her memorial service in Lodi, and United Farm Workers members began marching in Lodi on Sunday, expecting to reach the Capitol in Sacramento today.
To make a complaint, a worker needs to contact the nearest Cal-OSHA office, which for the Lodi area is in Modesto.
The Modesto office can be contacted at (209) 576-6260. Complaint forms can also be faxed to (209) 576-6191.
An online complaint form can be found at www.osh.gov/pls/osha7/ecomplaintform.html.
For more information, visit www.dir.ca.gov/dosh.
Her death remains under investigation and officials said they could not disclose details to avoid compromising the case.
But Bill Krycia, regional manager for the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA), noted that local and state prosecutors are already involved.
"The fact that we're coordinating at an early stage with the District Attorney's and Attorney General's offices shows how seriously we're taking it," he said.
And Duncan said the state is looking into revoking the labor contractor's license, a process that takes time due to legal wrangling. The state can also choose not to renew the contractor's license.
Labor contractors generally provide the employees for farmers who need a large number of people at once, when crops ripen. They are typically the ones on the hook for health and safety training and violations, since they oversee the employees, the state officials said.
That was likely the case at the Morada cherry orchard they visited Tuesday, though officials will investigate and check paper trails before reaching final conclusions.
The orchard owner was friendly and welcomed them onto the property, Fryer said, and he didn't mind talking publicly, either.
Ray Baglietto, who has grown cherries for a good 40 years, drives a tractor around the property, pulling large trays of cherries once they've been picked. He says with a grin that he's "only 83."
He said he leaves the employee matters to the labor contractor, who he'll pay about $45,000 for the cherry picking. And that's the cost for 16 acres of trees, which Baglietto said is one of the smaller orchards around. It's a fee he can't avoid, though.
"Where would I get 50 people to do it? You and I don't want to do this work," Baglietto said.