The death of a migrant worker from Mexico at a Nash County farm on a near 100-degree day in early September is under investigation by the North Carolina Department of Labor – and it has a connection to a Republican state senator and her family.
According to CNN, paramedics responded to Barnes Farming in Spring Hope on Sept. 5 after they received a call regarding a person in cardiac or respiratory arrest. The farm is owned by Nash County Republican state Sen. Lisa Barnes’ husband and family. Campaign donation records indicate that Barnes considered herself a “farmer” and a “farm manager” at Barnes Farming.
José Arturo Gónzalez Mendoza died on the farm’s property, an initial statement from Barnes Farming said.
Gónzalez Mendoza’s exact cause of death is pending autopsy, but an EMS report said he was affected by excessive heat and described his condition as “HOT.”
The initial statement from Barnes Farming said Gónzalez Mendoza died just a few days after he started working at the farm. The company’s initial statement said that he was harvesting sweet potatoes when he told his field supervisor that he didn’t feel well. He then went to rest on a bus used to take the workers to the fields.
The supervisor and an HR manager checked on Gónzalez Mendoza and then called 911 upon seeing his condition.
The company changed its statement outlining all the initial details later that day. Barnes Farming’s attorney, Marie Scott, told CNN in an email that the initial statement they sent to local media outlets was not being used by the company anymore.
She sent another statement without any of the original information detailing the circumstances of Gónzalez Mendoza’s death.
In the new statement, the company said it “takes the health and safety of each one of its team members extremely seriously and has prioritized health and safety since the Farm was started.”
Companies often say that they have their employees’ best interest in mind whenever one of them dies or gets seriously injured in the workplace, but Barnes Farming has a recent history of NC Department of Labor violations.
In addition to the open investigation into Gónzalez Mendoza’s death, Barnes Farming has paid off fines for violations that occurred in 2019 and 2020.
According to federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) documents, a case was opened on Oct. 23, 2019, following a health and safety-related complaint that was filed. The investigation resulted in the issuance of a “serious” citation for failing to have adequate toilet and handwashing facilities for employees.
According to the report, Barnes Farming violated the standard 1928.110(c)(2)(i), which says that “One toilet facility and one handwashing facility shall be provided for each twenty (20) employees or fraction thereof.” Barnes Farming was fined $2,400 but ended up settling the fine for $1,200 in April 2020. The case was closed on July 10, 2020.
At the same time the company was working to settle its 2019 penalty, they were under investigation for two health violations involving hazardous and toxic chemicals.
A case was opened on March 5, 2020, and investigators found that Barnes Farming violated two regulations protecting workers from hazardous and toxic chemicals while at the job site.
The company was found to be in violation of regulation 1910.1200 G 8, which says that they did not provide employees with copies of required safety data sheets for each hazardous chemical and failed to ensure that they were easy to access for employees during each work shift.
They also violated regulation 1910.1200 H 1, which says that Barnes Farming failed to “provide employees with effective information and training on hazardous chemicals in their work area at the time of their initial assignment, and whenever a new chemical hazard the employees have not previously been trained about is introduced into their work area.”
Barnes Farming also failed to provide information and training that covered “categories of hazards,” such as flammability or carcinogenicity, or specific chemicals. They also did not provide chemical-specific information on labels and safety data sheets.
Despite the severity of the two violations, Barnes Farming was only penalized $1,200 for each violation and they ended up settling for only $750 total. The case was closed on June 25, 2021.
Because the results of the autopsy have not been released yet, it’s not clear if Barnes Farming bears any responsibility for Gónzalez Mendoza’s death or if his death had nothing to do with the conditions at the farm.
Gónzalez Mendoza, who was originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, leaves behind a wife and two young children, according to a GoFundMe organized by Casa Azul de Wilson, a local Latino community nonprofit.
The executive director of the nonprofit, Flor Herrera-Picasso, told CNN that they wanted to help the employee’s family after they saw what happened at Barnes Farming.
“They should be held accountable for these critical conditions so that this doesn’t happen again,” said Herrera-Picasso.
Herrera-Picasso told CNN that Barnes Farming has previously mistreated workers by providing them with just 20-minute lunch breaks, as well as refusing to give water breaks to those who work out in the fields.
Barnes Farming did not respond when CNN reached out for comment on Herrera-Picasso’s claims.
According to the company’s original statement, they are working with the North Carolina Growers Association to handle “expenses related to his death and funeral.”
Herrera-Picasso said Barnes Farming will also take care of returning Gónzalez Mendoza’s body to Mexico for burial.