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Brock Scores States' Response on Farm Labor Facilities

February 19, 1986|HENRY WEINSTEIN | Times Labor Writer

BAL HARBOUR, Fla. — Secretary of Labor William E. Brock III criticized state governments Tuesday for their lack of response to a federal directive that they enact laws upgrading sanitary facilities for migrant farm workers.

Brock, declaring himself "underwhelmed" by the response of the states so far, said that he will enact federal sanitation standards if the states fail to act by an April, 1987, deadline.

Brock's comments came at a news conference after he addressed a closed session of the AFL-CIO executive council at its annual winter meeting here.

Labor, religious and public health organizations have been pressing the federal government to enact minimum sanitation standards for the nation's field workers since 1972. The labor secretary responded in September, 1985, by asking the states to require farm owners to provide field workers with drinking water, toilets and hand-washing facilities.

Currently, 13 states, including California, have field sanitation standards.

More than 500,000 American farm workers suffer rates of infection comparable to those of Third World peasants because their employers refuse to provide them with drinking water, toilets or a place to wash their hands, according to public health experts commissioned by the Labor Department to study the problem.

They are the only American workers without a right to such facilities.

In October, the Labor Department, acknowledging the health risk, sent letters to officials of all 50 states saying they had 18 months to issue sanitation standards providing for drinking water, toilets and hand-washing facilities and a program for adequate enforcement of the standard. Brock said Tuesday that the Labor Department had offered to help the states develop programs.

"Not nearly enough are responding fast enough," Brock acknowledged Tuesday. Only three states--Maine, Oregon and Texas--have submitted plans for review thus far, said Chris Winston, a spokeswoman for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Five states have failed to respond to Brock's letter in any fashion, she said. The remaining 42 states have designated state officials to meet with OSHA personnel on the issue.

Winston said Brock would act to promulgate federal standards unless enough states adopt adequate standards to ensure that "the vast majority" of field workers not presently covered by state standards will be protected.

On a related issue, Brock said he was "primarily to blame" for the fact that OSHA still does not have a director. The previous director, Robert Rowland, resigned in July.

Brock said he had sent the name of a potential nominee to the White House for approval and hoped to present the nomination to Congress within a matter of days. Neither he nor other Labor Department officials have been willing to say who the nominee is. But other sources in Washington say Brock has chosen John Pendergrass, who runs a chemical hazard awareness program for Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co.

Brock also said he opposed the Trade Deficit Reduction Act, legislation backed by the AFL-CIO that would, under certain circumstances, enforce tariffs on imports in an effort to rectify the United States' $149-billion trade imbalance. The Reagan Administration has opposed the legislation as a barrier to free trade.

Meanwhile, AFL-CIO officials said Tuesday that it will take several more days for them to complete the details of a program with the Bank of New York that would give union members and prospective union members an opportunity to obtain a Mastercard at 4% to 5% lower than normal interest rates. The bank and the federation reached tentative agreement on the deal, part of a new recruitment initiative by the labor federation,last week.

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