Defending the Rights of Forestry Workers

Every year hundreds of immigrant workers are brought to Southern Oregon on temporary H-2B visas to work planting and felling trees in remote mountain sites in Oregon, Northern California, Utah and Idaho. Recruited primarily in Mexico, many of these workers also are required to help battle forest fires. Isolated far from community resources and dependent completely on their employer to meet their basic needs, many of these workers suffer egregious and systemic workplace abuses.  Because they spend most of their time in the mountains, and because, even when they come back to civilization, access to specialized legal help on employment cases is very limited in Jackson County, it is very challenging for them to find badly needed legal help.  As a result, the Medford area has gradually become the center in the Northwest for forestry worker abuse, and a key entry point for use of the exploitive H-2B temporary alien worker program.

Over the last few years, NWJP has been working with community promotoras in Southern Oregon to reach out to and to serve some of Oregon’s most vulnerable workers: immigrant forestry workers. Lay workers originally trained to connect tree planters to medical care, these promotoras have been provided training on basic employment rights, how to do a basic intake for NWJP’s lawyers, and their ethical responsibilities in participating in legal representation. By working together, we are able to provide some access to badly needed legal remedies.

For example, NWJP is currently fighting for the rights of a worker who was badly injured when forced to work with a chainsaw that had a broken safety guard. The saw kicked back, wounding his face and chest. He and his brother, who was psychologically traumatized from witnessing the injury and holding the wound to staunch the bleeding during the long drive to the hospital, were retaliated against and blacklisted from future H-2B jobs.

In another case, two Latinx workers working on a predominately Anglo crew were subjected to a range of discriminatory abuses based on their ethnicity and because they reported injury on the job.

In almost all of the forestry cases that NWJP handles, workers are subjected to serious wage theft. Workers are usually driven to a remote motel where they temporarily stay, often for weeks at a time. In the mornings, they load a truck with trees, fuel and gear, and drive, often for hours, to the forestry site. They carry seedling trees and tools on their backs and hike extended distances into the forest over rough terrain to begin their work. Only when they begin to plant the first tree does the clock start running and they start getting paid.

While regular commuting to work is not paid time under state and federal law, certainly the time carrying trees into the forest by foot is. And, we believe that much of the other travel time for these workers, away from home, must also be compensated.

NWJP has been partnering with the Northwest Forest Worker Center, and now part of the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, to find, maintain contact with, and represent workers both on their individual cases of discrimination and retaliation, but also to try address systemic wage theft in the industry.

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