California Could Become the First State to Grant Farmworkers Overtime

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Whether farmworkers deserve standard overtime pay in California has been a contentious issue to say the least.

By Madeleine Thomas

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A farm worker labors in a field in Central California. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

California could become the first state in the nation to grant farmworkers the same overtime pay as its traditional hourly workforce — but a combative vote on the matter hangs precariously in the state’s Capitol.

Farming and ranching rank among California’s most profitable industries, generating $54 billion in 2014. Yet farmworkers’ median personal income that year hovered just around $15,000, according to the non-profit Farmworker Justice.

California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) is hoping to remedy that gap with her bill, AB1066. Overtime pay laws are outdated and unjust, Gonzales argues, and haven’t been updated in the nearly 80 years since a Jim Crow-era mandate first excused farmworkers (largely African American at the time) from overtime pay. The State Assembly was set to vote on AB1066 Thursday afternoon, but adjourned unexpectedly, prompting an outcry from hundreds of farminglobbyists who had gathered on the Capitol steps in fervent support.

Farmworkers must work 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week before making overtime.

A variation of AB1066 failed to pass in the Assembly earlier this summer, after an emotional and lengthy debate during which more than 16 lawmakers plead for its passage. A modified version of the bill just barely passed in the state Senate earlier this week with a 21–14 vote. Yesterday’s vote stalled in the Assembly, according to reports, because lawmakers realized they were shy of the 41 votes needed to pass the bill, and wanted to work on garnering last-minute support before re-assembling early next week.

The Los Angeles Timesreports:

Leaders with the United Farm Workers association initially exchanged terse words with Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) outside the chambers over the decision to wait.

“We are on the same team,” Garcia assured them, as labor leaders said dozens of farmworkers had given up their time and wages to be at the Capitol for the vote. “At the end of the day we are all trying to make sure this happens. We are going to get the 41 votes.”

California’s farmers and farmworkers — a band 829,000 strong — keep much of the country’s produce aisle stocked with mainstays like grapes, strawberries, and lettuce. The state supplies over one-third of the vegetables and two-thirds of fruits and nuts in America. Passing AB1066 isn’t just about equal pay, Gonzales argues—it’s about human rights.

“AB 1066 is our opportunity to establish basic fairness that, for the first time in our history, treats farmworkers with the same respect as everyone else,” she said in a press release.

If passed by the Assembly — and subsequently signed by Governor Jerry Brown — AB1066 would reverse a nearly 80-year-old law, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which first excused farmworkers from earning overtime pay. (The Act is perhaps best known for establishing minimum wage and child labor protections too.)

It wasn’t until 1976 that Brown (in his first stint in office)set the current overtime standards for farmworkers. Whereas most employees qualify for overtime after working eight hours a day or a 40-hour work week, farmworkers must work 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week before making overtime. AB1066 would grant farmers the same overtime standards as other workers in the state. The phase-in would be gradual, beginning in 2019. Farms with less than 25 employees have three additional years, until 2022, to comply.

Whether farmworkers deserve standard overtime pay in California has been a contentious issue, to say the least. The bill has drawn heavy lobbyist support from organizations like the United Farm Workers union, which took part in a 24-hour hunger strike with Gonzalez and Cesar Chavez’s great-grandson, Andres Chavez, earlier this month.

“Excluding farmworkers is part of our country’s shameful legacy that initially targeted African Americans who were farmworkers in the 1930s,” UFW said in support of the bill.

Opponents like the California Farm Bureau Federation and the California Cattlemen’s Association argue that granting farmworkers equal overtime pay could actually backfire across most of the state’s agricultural work force, as family farms in particular could be hard pressed to stretch thinning profits to cover overtime pay, especially given the rising costs of farming and the devastating drought plaguing California’s agriculture. If passed, as many as 78,000 farm jobs could be cut statewide, the California Farm Bureau Federation predicts, according to Politico.

The Assembly is set to resume on Monday.

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