Farmworkers in the nation’s largest agricultural state will be entitled to the same overtime pay as most other hourly workers under a law that Gov. Jerry Brown signed Monday.
Central San Joaquin Valley growers and farm groups, however, said the law will cost farmworkers money, saying farmers will move to more mechanization or less labor-intensive crops, or cut hours for crews to avoid hitting the overtime threshold.
They won’t come here if they can only work 40 hours.
Farmer Bill Chandler, predicting that the new farmworker overtime law will change the California labor landscape
The new law, which will be phased in beginning in 2019, is the first of its kind in the nation to end the 80-year-old practice of applying separate labor rules to agricultural laborers.
California employers currently must pay time-and-a half to farmworkers after 10 hours in a day or 60 hours in a week – longer than the overtime pay for other workers who get it after eight hours a day or 40 hours a week.
The new law will gradually lower the number of hours that irrigators, ranch hands and people who tend crops must work before accruing additional compensation. It will take full effect in 2022 for most businesses and in 2025 for farms with 25 or fewer employees.
“The hundreds of thousands of men and women who work in California’s fields, dairies and ranches feed the world and anchor our economy,” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, the author of the bill, said in a statement. “They will finally be treated equally under the law.”
Brown, a Democrat, signed the bill following a push by the United Farm Workers union and its allies, who say exempting farmworkers from labor laws is racist and unfair.
The governor, who signed historic legislation granting farmworkers the right to unionize when he was governor in 1975, has declined to comment on the legislation all year and declined again Monday through spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman.
Opponents argued the seasonal nature of farm labor, with long hours crucial to sow and harvest during specific weather and growing periods, does not lend itself to overtime.
They said the legislation would raise costs for farmers and make it more difficult for them to compete with rivals in other states and countries, and that added costs would force employers to cut workers’ hours, ultimately hurting hundreds of thousands of people in California.
“The governor has set in motion a chain of events that will cause workers in our fields to lose wages,” said Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of Western Growers. “It is one thing to dismiss the rationale for a seasonal industry to have a 10-hour overtime threshold rather than an eight-hour threshold. It’s something entirely worse to dismiss economic reality.”
Farmer Bill Chandler, who has grown peaches in the Selma area for more than 40 years, said he fears some workers, who traditionally travel from out of state, will avoid California.
“They won’t come here if they can only work 40 hours,” Chandler said.
Unfortunately, our guys’ paychecks will be smaller.
Farmer Kevin Herman
One other possible outcome is the Valley may see a much more rapid shift to crops that can be harvested mechanically, including almonds.
“As it is, a lot of people are already pulling out peaches,” Chandler said. “And this could mean we are going to see more of that.”
Farmer Kevin Herman agrees that farmers will step up their efforts to find ways for machines to do the work of hand labor.
Herman, who farms figs, almonds, pistachios and persimmons in Madera County, said he likely will add another almond shaker so he can keep his crews from working their normal 60 to 70 hours a week.
“Unfortunately, our guys’ paychecks will be smaller,” Herman said.
Justin Oldfield, vice president of government relations for the California Cattlemen’s Association, said the obligation to care for animals “doesn’t always adhere to an eight-hour day, 40-hour work week.”
Producers can’t afford to pay workers overtime for 60-hour weeks and stay competitive, he said. They are likely to hire more employees rather than pay overtime, he said, and that would essentially mean a pay cut for existing employees.
Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, called the new law “a slap in the face” that will deprive farmworkers of needed income.
“Sometimes, the best intentions can have the worst consequences,” he said in a written statement.
Farmworkers have been exempt from overtime pay requirements since Congress approved the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 to outline workplace protections.
Farmworkers were again exempted in 1999 when California guaranteed overtime pay after eight hours in a day, not just 40 in a week.
California has for decades been a battleground over farmworker rights. Cesar Chavez brought together farmworkers and founded the UFW in the Central Valley in the 1960s, organizing thousands of workers who demanded better wages and working conditions.
California was the first state to give farmworkers collective bargaining rights, workers compensation and unemployment services. The state also requires that employers provide rest breaks and access to water and shade.
Bee staff writer Robert Rodriguez and The Associated Press contributed to this report.