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Work conditions for local forest crews found lacking

Many forest workers in Jackson and Josephine counties toil in a work environment that fails to meet current labor law requirements, according to a study released Wednesday.

Some 59 percent went to work despite feeling too sick to work and 41 percent were on the job while enduring pain from injuries, the report concluded.

The report was a joint effort by the Alliance of Forest Workers and Harvesters and the Labor Occupational Health Program at the University of California, Berkeley.

The study found that more than 75 percent of the respondents never got a 10-minute rest break every four hours as state law requires.

And significant numbers of the respondents said they had to pay for their own safety equipment, even though state law requires employers to provide all necessary safety equipment free of charge to workers, except for boots, the report found.

"Forest ecosystem restoration workers do the important work like planting trees, thinning overstocked stands and clearing brush," observed Carl Wilmsen, director of the Albany, Calif.-based alliance and the report's principal author.

"They help protect homes and businesses from fire yet the conditions under which they work are abysmal," he added.

The results are based on interviews with 150 forest workers in the region from January to June of 2011, he said.

But Wilmsen was quick to add the report does not find fault with all the more than 40 forest worker groups and companies in the two-county area. The interviews included workers from about half of the groups and companies in the region.

For instance, he cited both Grayback Forestry Inc. of Merlin and Lomakatsi Restoration Project in Ashland for providing a safe work environment that surpasses state standards.

"There are some very good contractors out there," he said. "Grayback and Lomakatsi are very good. They follow the law and do good safety training for their workers. But there are also an awful lot who skirt the rules."

Many of the forest workers who do the work are immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries, said Wilmsen who has been involved in forest worker issues for more than 20 years.

"Only slightly more than a third of the respondents said they got safety training, and for these workers what typically passes as training is the foreman or a coworker taking five minutes to show a new hire what to do," Wilmsen said.

The number of injuries encountered by the workers is likely higher than the report indicates, he suggested.

"Employers and workers both have incentives not to report injuries," he said. "Employers don't want their workers' comp premiums to go up, and workers fear being fired if they get injured."

Other similar studies around the nation concluded that the injury and illness rate is typically higher than officially reported, he noted.

In addition, the report indicated that almost half the workers don't get paid overtime while 45 percent said they did not get paid for all the hours they worked during the previous year.

To resolve the problem, he urges agencies contracting out to those who hire forest workers make sure they are in compliance with all labor laws when the agencies send inspectors out to check that contracts are being met.

"They need to make sure everything is in compliance," he said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.