Death of migrant worker killed on Immokalee farm under federal investigation

Posted | by Ian Pajer-Rogers |

Esteban Manuel Ernesto arrived last year to work the fields around Immokalee, with plans to make enough money to build a home in Mexico and maybe college for his daughters so they could find good jobs.

He took his partner, Florencia Medina, and their three daughters with him to the bus in a town an hour away so they could see him off on his journey north. He promised his girls he would bring them shoes and a laptop computer for his oldest to do her homework, something she had always wanted.

He hugged and kissed his daughters, ages 2, 9 and 11, before boarding the bus, and then he waived goodbye.

Manuel returned to his Mexican hometown of El Barco at the end of March, his body in a coffin carried in an ambulance.

He died at age 31 on Feb. 17, run over by a truck while working on a farm run by Gulf Coast Farms in Hendry County. The death is under investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency responsible for overseeing work safety.

“He used to tell (his daughters) that they had to study hard, and that he would work hard to help them at school,” Medina said of Manuel, who traveled here with a guest worker visa. “He wanted to fight ... But he couldn’t because of the accident.”

The flatbed truck where Manuel and other farmworkers dumped buckets of chili peppers ran over him, an accident report shows. The truck’s driver couldn’t see Manuel crouched down picking peppers while it was backing up and the truck had no beeping horn signaling it was in reverse, according to the Hendry County report.

The lack of a backup alarm is a recognized work safety hazard, OSHA spokesman Michael D’Aquino said.

The driver, Jose Carmen Leon - who was also the crew leader who hired the workers - told deputies he advised everyone the truck was going to move, put the truck in reverse and then his wife told the victim to get of the way also, according to the report. Leon declined to comment for this story.

Alvaro Martinez, Manuel’s cousin, who was working with him that day, said he believed only those who were on the drivers side of the truck were warned. Manuel was on the other side.

Medina’s attorney, Brent Probinsky, said employers should make sure there are safety measures in place, such as backup alarms, proper mirrors in the truck, or proper lookouts. A insurer has refused providing compensation for Manuel’s death, said Probinsky, who said he is evaluating the case.

When the employers have workers’ compensation insurance, families can get up to $150,000 plus funeral costs without needing to prove negligence by the employer. If they don’t have it, they can be sued without a monetary limit if it’s proven that the employer was at fault, said Greg Schell, attorney for Florida Legal Services.

Manuel belonged to two groups of workers who are at high risk of dying at work in the U.S. — Hispanics and farmworkers.

Hispanics died at work at a higher rate than white, black and Asian workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while the death rate fell from 2012 to 2013 for all non-Hispanic worker groups, it increased for Hispanics. The rate for Hispanics was 3.9 sudden fatalities at work per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers in 2013 while non-Hispanic white workers rate was 3.4. For black workers it was 3.1 and Asians 1.6, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Jeanette Smith, director of Interfaith Worker Justice of South Florida, said those Hispanics who are in the country undocumented may be more prone to accept a more dangerous environment for fear they won’t find another job. Hispanics tend to work at a higher rate at industries that are riskier, like construction or agriculture, she said.

View the full story from Naples Daily News