LABOR DEPARTMENT TO CITE OKEELANTA CORPORATION FOLLOWING FATAL AUTOMOBILE ACCIDENT AT SUGAR MILL
LABOR DEPARTMENT TO CITE OKEELANTA CORPORATION
FOLLOWING FATAL AUTOMOBILE ACCIDENT AT SUGAR MILL
SOUTH BAY, Fla., Nov. 13 /PRNewswire/ -- Okeelanta Corporation said today it has learned that U.S. Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin will come to Florida Thursday to hold a press conference and announce citations against the company and several of its independent labor contractors following a fatal automobile accident near the Okeelanta Sugar Mill on Oct. 18.
"The accident was a heart-breaking tragedy which deeply affected everyone at our company," said Joseph P. Klock Jr., Okeelanta's general counsel. "We made every effort to assist the victims' families and are providing workers compensation benefits for all of them. We were distressed that a teenager was able to use false identification to work in the fields."
Klock said the company is continuing its study of the feasibility and desirability of adjusting speed limits, installing guard rails and examining other safety needs on its farm roads following two accidents this harvest season.
The Labor Department has already cited Areceli Rivera, the independent contractor crew leader of the seven Guatemalan sugar cane planters who died in the accident.
Ms. Rivera was cited for allegedly allowing 15-year-old Julio Mendoza Corince, one of the victims in the accident, to use false identification and work for several days planting sugarcane prior to the accident, even though he was too young to legally work.
Additionally, Rivera has been cited for failing to have certification to provide transportation for her crew and for unsafe conditions of the car in which they were riding.
Klock said the company will be cited for the same violations, but he did not know the amount of the fines to be assessed. He said he expected at least three other crew chiefs employed by Okeelanta to be cited for failing to be authorized to provide transportation for workers.
Klock said the company is not required by law to ask that its crew chiefs provide transportation or be authorized to do so since workers are expected to provide their own transportation to and from work.
Police at the accident scene at first described Mendoza as appearing to be 20 to 25-years-old. He was later found to be using the identification of a 33-year-old man, thought to be an older brother or cousin.
Mendoza, along with all other sugarcane planters who work at the area's sugarmills, was certified as being legally authorized for work by the Florida Job Service, an agency of Florida state government empowered by the Federal government to issue certification. Okeelanta and other sugarmills hire workers only after they have received Florida Job Service certification.
"We understand the Labor Department's concern about this tragic accident," Klock said, "but we neither find justification in the law to cite the company for knowingly allowing a minor to work when certification was the responsibility of the Florida Job Service nor for citing the company for providing unsafe transportation when it was not involved in providing transportation.
"It is clear that the Labor Department is under pressure from Congressional committees to demonstrate tough enforcement actions against Florida sugar growers," Klock said. "It is unfortunate that it felt required to race through an investigation of this incident to issue what in our opinion are groundless and unjust charges against us.
"We previously invited members of Congress, the Executive Branch, social activists, and the press to look at our operations, talk to our workers, and talk to us, so that all of them and the public could see the quality of our operations and the conditions of the workplace for our workers," Klock said.
Klock said Okeelanta has requested a meeting tomorrow with Secretary Martin and has cooperated fully with her agency's investigation. We hope the department will provide adequate staffing and funding in order that agricultural workers can be properly screened and certified in the future.
"We are very determined that our company comply with every regulation of the Labor Department and are re-examining all our procedures to make sure that we comply with both the letter and the spirit of those regulations," Klock said. "The safety and well-being of all our employees is our highest priority."
/CONTACT: Otis Wragg or Ray Casas of Wragg & Casas, 305-372-1234, for Okeelanta Corporation/ CO: Okeelanta Corporation ST: Florida IN: SU: JJ-AW -- FL008 -- 4082 11/13/91 16:03 EST