New Policies Help Workers with Limited English Skills Assert Legal Rights

BATON ROUGE, La. – January 19, 2012 – Southern Migrant Legal Services (SMLS) is applauding an agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF) that will help workers with limited English proficiency assert their legal rights.

The agreement comes as a result of a complaint SMLS filed with the EPA after the LDAF refused to investigate worker allegations of repeated exposure to pesticides. Southern Migrant Legal Services, a project of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, filed the Title VI civil rights complaint on behalf of fourteen guestworkers from Mexico who had been subjected to repeated pesticide exposure while working on a Tangipahoa Parish strawberry farm from September 2007 through February 2008.  In the complaint, SMLS alleged that the LDAF’s refusal to investigate the guestworkers’ reports of pesticide exposure until they traveled to Baton Rouge for in-person interviews constituted national origin discrimination. According to Spring Miller, an SMLS attorney representing the workers, “Many of these workers had returned to Mexico, as required by the terms of their visas, and were unable to travel back to Baton Rouge. LDAF would investigate their complaints only if these workers showed up for an interview.  That policy makes it nearly impossible for the thousands of farmworkers across the state to make complaints about pesticide misuse.”

After a three-year investigation, the EPA announced this week that it has entered into a settlement agreement with LDAF. The settlement requires the LDAF to conduct telephone interviews when pesticide complainants or witnesses are unavailable for in-person interviews.  It also mandates that the LDAF contract with Spanish interpreters as needed and that it conduct eight community outreach sessions over the next two years.

“We are gratified that the LDAF has taken steps to ensure that all agricultural workers in Louisiana have access to the pesticide protections to which they are entitled under federal law,” added Miller. “We look forward to working with the agency as it implements the terms of this landmark agreement.”

The EPA-LDAF settlement and the EPA’s findings of fact are available online at www.epa.gov/ocr/TitleVIcases/index.html#ldaf.

SMLS is a project of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) based in Nashville, Tennessee that provides free employment-related legal services to migrant farmworkers who work in Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Established in 1970, TRLA is a nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to low-income and disadvantaged clients in a 68-county service area. TRLA’s mission is to promote the dignity, self-sufficiency, safety and stability of low-income Texas residents by providing high-quality legal assistance and related educational services.

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