Farmworkers in the state that produces more than half the nation’s fruit and vegetables will be entitled to the same overtime pay as most other hourly workers under a law signed today by California Gov. Jerry Brown.
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. Currently, after 10 hours in a day, or 60 hours in a week, California employers must pay time-and-a-half to farmworkers. Other workers get overtime after eight hours a day or 40 hours a week.
The law was immediately condemned by grower associations, who said the legislation would not help farmworkers at all. Western Growers President & CEO Tom Nassif said in a statement:
“The governor has set in motion a chain of events that will cause workers in our fields to lose wages. 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 is something entirely worse to dismiss economic reality. Our farmers compete with farmers in other states and countries with no overtime costs, far lower minimum wages, reliable water supplies and far less regulatory burden.”
The law will be implemented gradually. It will take full effect in 2022 for most businesses and in 2025 for farms with 25 or fewer employees.
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 had declined to comment on the bill throughout the legislative process, and did so again Monday.
The legislation signed Monday, Assembly Bill 1066, authored by Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, passed both the state Senate and Assembly late last month. Gonzalez said Monday in a statement:
“This is a truly historic day in California. Thanks to an incredible coalition of workers, lawmakers, labor, environmentalists and individually committed Californians, we have finally righted a 78-year wrong for farmworkers. The hundreds of thousands of men and women who work in California’s fields, dairies and ranches feed the world and anchor our economy. They will finally be treated equally under the law. It is a good day.”
Opponents, who had plans to meet with Brown this week and were caught off-guard by the announcement, have argued the seasonal nature of farm work 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 farmworkers in California.
“California farmers will have no choice but to avoid even higher costs of production and they will utilize a number of strategies, including reducing work shifts and production of crops that require large numbers of employees,” Nassif added in his statement. “The box stores, grocery chains and restaurant companies that buy fresh produce can and will purchase from growers in other states and countries to keep prices down. They don’t care about the high costs of operating in California. Neither, apparently, do a majority of the California Legislature or the Governor.”
In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which established the minimum wage, recordkeeping, child labor standards and overtime pay eligibility. However, the FLSA exempted agricultural workers, and in 1941, the California Legislature officially exempted all agricultural workers from statutory requirements of overtime.
Interestingly enough, in 1976, Gov. Brown — in his first term he was the state’s youngest governor, now he is the oldest — signed legislation establishing a modified standard for these workers still in effect today, with a 10-hour day and 60-hour week.
However, some growers pointed out Monday that far from bringing agriculture up to date, the governor is losing sight of the real-world ramifications for farmworkers.
“The passage this year of AB 1066 and a minimum wage hike make clear that the union agenda in Sacramento is incompatible with the goal of sustaining a thriving agricultural economy in our state,” states California Association of Winegrape Growers Chairman Aaron Lange, a Lodi grower. “The implications of this bill are far reaching and the message from Sacramento is clear — mechanize or leave the state. AB 1066 will hurt farmworkers and farmers, and make poorer rural communities across the state.”