The exploitation of farm labor is one of California’s oldest and most regrettable stories. And it persists, despite hard-won change.
The poorly paid, mostly immigrant workers who pick your lettuce, tomatoes, citrus, strawberries and cauliflower may have unions to look out for them now, unlike past generations, but they are still, for example, exempt from laws requiring overtime after eight hours of work in a 40-hour workweek. Farmworkers can’t get time and a half unless they first put in a 10-hour day.
There are reasons for this, some shameful, some pragmatic. Perhaps some history is in order.
Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 but farmworkers were exempted from some of the most basic rights, including overtime. Why? It was the only way to get the votes of lawmakers in the Deep South who didn’t want to improve the lot of blacks toiling on farms.
Forty years ago, California mandated that farm laborers receive overtime pay if they work more than 10 hours in a day or more than 60 hours in a week. That legislation represented progress, but not nearly enough.
Many farmers today treat their seasonal employees well. But the pay disparity that’s built into the law – a financial break that the state’s $55 billion farm industry and millions of grocery shoppers have come to rely on – invites abuse from bad actors and perpetuates attitudes that verge on the feudal in some corners of our state.
Assembly Bill 1066, sponsored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, would take a step to change that, by gradually imposing the same overtime standards on farm work as in nearly all other industry.
Farm lobbyists protest that farm labor isn’t like other labor. Payrolls expand and contract due to seasonal rushes, and some small farmers work on razor-thin margins. They argue that mandating overtime after 8 hours instead of 10 will just prompt farmers to split workdays into two shifts, or replace labor-intensive crops like lettuce with more acres of high-margin grapes, olives and almonds and use fewer people and more machines.
This may end up being the case. But many industries are seasonal, from ski slopes to surf shops, and they manage. And the farm industry has a way of reflexively resisting change, just as the unions representing farm laborers too often default to counterproductive demonization. (Witness last week’s photo-op flooding of the Capitol with farmworkers, even though those behind AB 1066 knew it didn’t yet have the votes for passage.)
Most likely, this overtime bill – which phases in over six years, with even more time for small farmers – will, after nominal adjustment, simply add a few cents more to the cost of produce. It should pass. If it changes the old narrative and makes farm work more equal, it will be a small price to pay.