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Perils among the palms

Some immigrants who get by as gardeners are finding real money in tree trimming. But a lack of training and experience can be deadly.

October 26, 2006|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

LIKE many of the immigrant men from his Mexican village, Gerardo Rodriguez was a Los Angeles gardener. But few from his village had done so much so young.

The 19-year-old, who came to the United States illegally, was already his own boss. He had his own truck, tools and a small gardening route.

Plus, he was learning to prune palm trees. He hadn't scaled many, but he told his friends that he liked it. Palms paid more, required more nerve and made him the focus of other men's awe.

On an April afternoon in East Los Angeles, as he yanked away dead fronds halfway up a 50-foot palm, the tallest he'd ever scaled, Gerardo Rodriguez had reason to feel the world spinning his way.

Then he pulled the wrong frond. Suddenly, a thick ring of them came loose and plunged on top of him. It pinned him back against the belt that held him to the tree. He gulped its dust as he battled it like a beast. But it weighed too much.

A coroner's report found that he was asphyxiated in that tree, just out of reach of his friends.

The story of how Gerardo Rodriguez died is part of a larger tale about Southern California's changing "green industry," the gardening and tree-trimming trades. Once a path to a middle-class life embraced by skilled Japanese American entrepreneurs, the industry has come to resemble a Third World factory: low-wage, low-skill, under-the-table, fiercely competitive and at times dangerous.

Tree trimming especially requires caution and preparation, but these are increasingly sacrificed in the green industry's underground economy.

Nationally, "tree workers have a fatality rate three or four times that of police officers and firefighters," said John Ball, a South Dakota State University forestry professor who tracks tree accidents nationwide. "Your odds of being killed in this industry are one in 3,000."

Statewide, California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, has investigated 394 tree-work accidents, including 67 deaths, since 1990, when the worker-safety agency began keeping statistics. More than half those accidents -- 214, including 42 deaths -- have happened since 2000, according to agency reports.

Fourteen of the 67 deaths occurred in palm trees, 11 of them since 2002.

Tree trimmers die in falls after mistakenly cutting their security belts with their chain saws. They accidentally cut their arms and toes; they fracture spinal cords. Trees fall on them; they're electrocuted; and some are mangled in grinders.

Palm trees are particularly tricky. Dead fronds often appear to be attached to the tree. In reality they are attached only to other fronds in a deceptive weave. When the dead fronds are pulled loose, the whole weave collapses, as it did on Rodriguez.

A segment of the tree industry -- companies that are bonded, licensed and insured -- is investing more than ever in safety, in training seminars and better equipment. It is standard practice for such a company to have a contractor's license and liability insurance and to employ a certified arborist who maintains certification through continuing education, said Rose Epperson of the Western chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture in Orange County.

Yet accidents and deaths are rising as untrained, inexperienced Latino immigrants flood into the gardening and tree-trimming trades in Southern California.

Homeowners fuel the problem. They often hire based on price, ignoring whether a worker is insured, skilled or legally in the country.

Immigrants, mostly undocumented, come primarily from villages in four north-central Mexican states. Often equipped with more desire than skill, they enter the trade easily, with a few tools and a truck, and then madly compete among themselves.

"They sense what the market will bear and undercut professional companies," said Randy Finch, owner of Finch Tree Surgery in San Gabriel, founded by his father in the 1940s and the state's first company accredited by the Tree Care Industry Assn. "We barely make a living in a very risky, low-profit industry."

The result, in the words of one tree trimmer, is a world of "dog-eat-dog, scraping against the bottom of the barrel for the scraps."

But to Gerardo Rodriguez, it seemed a world of opportunity.


A FRIEND, Mari Marrufo, recalled the sparkle in Rodriguez's eyes when, a few months before his death, he told her he was learning to prune palm trees.

"He was very happy," she said, "because it meant more money."

He had shown up at her door in South Los Angeles in 2002 asking to rent a room. Relatives had thrown him out of their apartment, he said.

He was from her hometown in Mexico. She and her husband, Saul Nunez, let him stay, charging him nominal rent.

"He lived with us as if he were our son," Marrufo said. "My sons loved him like a brother. He was very friendly, very simple and had a lot of desire to get ahead."

Rodriguez had crossed the Arizona desert and arrived in Los Angeles alone at 15, with the shirt on his back and a fourth-grade education, the youngest son of a poor rancher.

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