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NC farm fined $187,500 for labor violations after death of worker

Workers loaded watermelons onto a truck in Wilson County in August 2023, on a day when temperatures were in the 90s. Extreme heat is a challenge for outdoor workers.
David Boraks
Workers loaded watermelons onto a truck in Wilson County in August 2023, on a day when temperatures were in the 90s. Extreme heat is a challenge for outdoor workers.

The North Carolina Department of Labor last week fined a farm in Nash County $187,509 after the death of a seasonal farm worker last September. The department cited Barnes Farming with what’s called a “willful serious violation,” along with two other “serious” violations, fining the company the maximum penalty.

The fine was issued March 4, 2024.

The day 29-year-old Jose Arturo Gonzalez Mendoza of Guanajuato, Mexico died last fall, the heat index was in the high 90s. He had started working at the farm in Spring Hope about 40 miles east of Raleigh less than two weeks before, his younger brother told WFAE in September.

The citation says Barnes Farming “failed to implement adequate control measures to prevent employees from experiencing heat-related illnesses.” It included the following problems:

  • The farm only scheduled one five-minute break for the six-hour day.
  • Shaded or cool areas were not provided for during those breaks. Breaks were taken inside of a hot bus that had no air-conditioning and was often parked in a field with direct sunlight.
  • While a 10-gallon cooler was available, there were no cups, so employees had to place their head under the spigot to drink.
  • There was no protocol for administering first aid or calling emergency responders for workers with signs of heat-related illness.

A “serious” violation cites Barnes Farming for exposing employees “to a lack of timely medical care.”

Gonzalez Mendoza was harvesting sweet potatoes in direct sunlight when he began to show signs of heat-related illness — including confusion, fatigue, and loss of consciousness, according to the NC Department of Labor. The citation says managers never called for medical help or provided first aid. Another employee called 911 about 50 minutes after Gonzalez Mendoza started exhibiting symptoms, but he went into cardiac arrest before that help arrived.

A statement from Barnes Farming in September said González Mendoza told his field supervisor that he wasn’t feeling well and went to rest at the back of the bus used to transport workers. Shortly after a manager checked on him, the company said, and called 911.

Gonzalez Mendoza was in North Carolina under an H-2A visa for temporary agricultural workers. The state has about 15,000 H-2A visa holders who help harvest tobacco, cotton and sweet potatoes. There are no labor regulations currently in place at the state or federal level mandating breaks or other heat-related safety measures.

The statute the NC Department of Labor said Barnes Farming violated was that it did not provide “a place of employment free from recognized hazards that were causing or were likely to cause death or serious related injury.”

The citation says Barnes Farming agreed “to develop and implement all elements of a heat stress prevention program” as part of an informal settlement in May 2020.

The NC Department of Labor weighs fines considering the gravity of the violations, the size of the business, the cooperation of the employer, and the history of previous violations.

“The penalties are in no way designed to make up for the loss of life,” said labor department spokeswoman Erin Wilson.

Barnes Farming has 15 days once it receives the violation to appeal or pay the penalty. An attorney representing the farm said the company is contesting the citations which, she said in a statement, “remain merely allegations.”

The statement read: “Barnes Farming takes the health and safety of each one of its team members extremely seriously, has prioritized health and safety since the farm started, and continues to do so.”

This story has been updated to include a statement from the attorney representing Barnes Farming.

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Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.