Labor and Water Dominate California Fruit Growers’ Concerns

Growers all over the U.S. are concerned about labor, and those in the Golden State are no exception. The California Fresh Fruit Association (CFFA) announced the results of their “Top Issues Survey” for 2021, and labor- and water-related issues were prominently featured. CFFA members were recently surveyed to rank the top issues for the association to focus its efforts on this year.

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President Ian LeMay says the CFFA membership has provided staff a strong assessment of the issues that the industry will grapple with in 2021.

“As we saw in 2020, the California fresh fruit industry continues to be impacted by increasing regulatory requirements, labor and wage cost increases, and water availability all while continuing to provide the nation and world with quality fresh produce,” LeMay says. “CFFA will continue to act as the industry’s unified voice on these issues, and many more, in both Sacramento and Washington, DC.”

Outlined below are the areas of most importance that were identified. However, CFFA staff has acknowledged that while not specifically listed, issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to have an overarching influence on all advocacy efforts that the association undertakes throughout 2021.

1) Increasing Wage Costs (Base/Minimum Wage/Overtime Thresholds) ― Labor costs continue to increase, resulting from changes to agriculture overtime and an increasing minimum wage, which rose to $13 per hour in January. Seasonal wages, along with those in every category of agricultural production, such as tractor drivers and irrigators, increase proportionately along with a higher minimum wage. Farmers routinely experience seasonal hourly costs of approximately $15 to $20 per hour, and these amounts will only increase as the largest business cost for growers and shippers of labor-intensive fresh fruit commodities who must compete in a highly competitive global market.

2) Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) Requirements ― The passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) provides for local management of groundwater basins throughout California. The creation of groundwater sustainability agencies will combine with enforcement mechanisms to ensure the sustainable use of groundwater resources through plans that were required to be in place as of January 2020, to achieve sustainability in the basins within 20 years of implementation. There is significant concern that, because of this Act, the governance of groundwater supplies will look much differently in just a few years, as local agencies will be tasked with ensuring that pumping of groundwater does not jeopardize the basin’s ability to be sustainable over the long term.

3) Federal Immigration Policies Addressing Current and Future Labor Forces ― Despite both legal and political hurdles, we continue to impress upon our elected representatives that Congressional action is needed to ensure a long-term solution toward addressing labor security for the agriculture industry. The association continues to be a key component in the policy-shaping debate on both short and long-term proposals to strengthen labor security.

4) Labor Regulatory Compliance ― Every year the California Legislature considers measures that advance opportunities for organized labor to unionize the agricultural labor force. Missing from that consideration is the thorough examination of the will of the labor force and the value they perceive in paying a percentage in dues for added wages, benefits, and working conditions that either have been addressed or continue to be advanced by the Legislature or through regulation, thus deflating the value of union membership. The association remains committed and ready to confront biased rulemaking and legislative attempts to tilt the balance against the employer while ignoring the will of the employee to freely choose whether or not to be part of a union.

5) Water Supply Availability and Curtailment ― CFFA represents a highly diverse membership, spanning from Lake County in the north, down through the San Joaquin Valley and south into the Coachella Valley. The need for long-term water certainty remains of utmost importance to sustaining a viable agricultural sector. The drought conditions that continued through 2016 placed significant stress onto farming operations, shifting more permanent fresh fruit crop producers to rely upon groundwater supplies. Despite current hydrologic conditions, the variability of our permanent crops is dependent upon a certain water supply and the political will to protect California agriculture production in the face our mounting regulatory and legal challenges, which will undoubtedly curtail or limit access to critically needed water supply.

6) Health Care Costs (Policy Costs and Paid Sick Leave) ― In the wake of the Affordable Care Act employer mandate, providing health care coverage to employees became the norm, as opposed to the exception. It is the desire of the employer to ensure a healthy workplace and continue to make investments into employee wellness. For instance, some employers have created unique partnerships with health-care providers within their own local community and others have created on-site health care options for both farm employees and their families. Employers recognize that healthy employees and families increase the likelihood of continued productivity. However, as employees grow older and health care costs rise onto both employers and employees alike, the association remains concerned over changes that could shift a larger portion of financial responsibility onto the employer to offer affordable coverage or be faced with offering coverage that borders the line of affordability for both parties in a way that becomes a financial burden for both employer and employee alike.

7) Immigration Enforcement (ICE) ―Frustrations continue as earnest attempts to secure passage of a comprehensive immigration package have been met with resistance in both the House and Senate. To ensure the continued production of a domestic food supply, comprehensive reform that contains an agricultural labor component remains vital. In working as part of diverse national coalitions, the association continues to urge Congressional representatives and the Biden administration to support measures designed to ensure an adequate and legal work force for agriculture, while highlighting the fact that the pressure on employers and the employee base continue to mount.

8) Federal and State Food Safety Compliance Requirements ― Ensuring a safe food supply remains a top priority, and the industry continues its advancements in employing science and risk-based practices through food safety research designed to identify potential risks and guide the continued production of safe, fresh fruit. Growers and packers are looking to ensure their implementation of food safety practices exceed government standards such as the Food Safety Modernization Act for safe production and the ever-increasing retailer demands for meeting demand-side food safety expectations. The industry will look to lead with the implementation of science and risk-based practices to continue to preserve consumer confidence and meet their expectations.

9) Plant Health Materials (Pesticides, Herbicides, Fungicides, Etc.) ― The association works to protect the use of critical plant health materials to ensure good quality, marketable fruit. The association is well-positioned to serve as the conduit for preserving critical tools for the fresh grape, berry, and deciduous tree fruit sectors in order to meet the demands of the domestic and international markets.

10) Workers’ Compensation Costs ―During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, workers’ compensation costs became an important concern given the volume of labor needed to perform field and packing activities. New safety techniques and training were implemented to help to decrease the opportunity of spread of the virus. Additionally, joint liability for both labor contractors and client employers for the failure to maintain valid workers’ compensation insurance for workers, potentially add to the growing costs of doing business for growers.

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