BURNHAM — Francisco Munoz's hands grabbed at unripe salad tomatoes as fast as they could, filling two buckets that together earned him $1.05.
Heat waves visibly undulated overhead as he bent over to pick, raced to a truck to dump the buckets – each 25 pounds – then raced back to start again.
"I'm the champion. I can earn up to $20 an hour," Munoz, 42, said in Spanish, his chest heaving, his face glistening with sweat.
The option of piece-rate pay allows a farmworker like Muñoz to vault far above the $8-an-hour state minimum that he and 200 other workers were guaranteed, no matter how fast they picked this field east of Stockton. But during heat waves, job safety specialists say, the ubiquitous piece-rate system may be contributing to laborers working – or being worked – to death.
Since May, half of 12 heat-related job deaths under investigation in California have been of Latino farmworkers, four of them in jobs paying piece rate. The deaths are consistent with a new study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that documents a disproportionate number of crop worker fatalities.
The June report found that between 1992 and 2006, U.S. crop workers died from heat illness at a rate 20 times greater than all other workers, and three and a half times greater than construction workers.
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