As a bill heads to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk, California’s farmworkers are on the verge of setting a historic pay precedent.
By Madeleine Thomas
(Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
After two hours of deliberation on Monday, the California State Assembly passed legislation increasing overtime pay for farmworkers. If signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, California — already the country’s largest agricultural producer — will become the first state in the nation to give its farm laborers the same overtime pay rights as the rest of the state’s hourly workforce.
The bill would set a historic precedent for the more than 825,000 farm laborers across the state. As current law stands, California’s farmworkers are only eligible for overtime after a 10-hour workday or a 60-hour workweek. Should the bill become law, farmworkers who labor more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week would become newly eligible for additional pay. The proposal passed in the Assembly with a 44–32 vote on Monday, prompting cries of support from members of the United Farm Workers association, who gathered in droves on the steps of the Capitol.
“The whole world eats the food provided by California farmworkers, yet we don’t guarantee fair overtime pay for the backbreaking manual labor they put in to keep us fed,” said California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), who sponsored the bill. “We know this is the right thing to do, and thanks to the hard work of an incredible coalition throughout the state and across the country, we’re now one step closer to finally providing our hard-working farmworkers the dignity they deserve.”
There are five states, including California, that grant farmworkers some sort of overtime. At its core, the issue of the bill is whether farm labor — largely seasonal work — is worthy of overtime pay. Why add an additional financial burden to farmers, opponents argue, many of them already hit hard by the rising costs of seed and drought, if some laborers only work several months out of the year? Others argue that tightening requirements would only serve to backfire against the workforce, especially for farmers who already have their employees working at the current 60-hour work week and can’t afford to increase their salaries. In that case, many farmers could resort to cutting back hours; hiring additional employees to stretch out the amount of labor and hours worked; or laying off workers entirely.
“If signed by Governor Brown, the increased overtime costs imposed on California family farmers will compound newly enacted minimum wage increases set to reach $15 per hour by 2022.” Tom Nassif, the CEO and president of Western Growers, said yesterday. “The members who voted for this bill have placed California farms at an even further competitive disadvantage internationally and with other states.”
Supporters counter that the bill isn’t about economics; it’s an issue of human rights. Overtime pay laws haven’t been updated since the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, a Jim Crow-era mandate that excused farmworkers — mostly African American at the time — from earning overtime pay. California’s farmworkers finally qualified for overtime in 1976, during Brown’s first stint in office. A series of historic farmworker strikes for fair pay, union contracts, and humane working conditions — led by the renowned activist Cesar Chavez — eventually led to the formation of UFW.
“There may be situations where people may believe that they will lose something in terms of economics, but my father taught me that it was more than about the money, it was about who he was as a man and it was about him being respected by everyone else like everyone else,” Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), whose father was a sharecropper, told the Associated Press on Monday. “Sometimes, for that reason, you make that economic sacrifice.”
Brown’s office has yet to comment on the bill.