On Monday 12 September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law which will expand overtime pay to farmworkers in the nation’s largest agricultural state. It is a historic move which means farmworkers will now be entitled to the same overtime pay as most other hourly workers.
However, Central San Joaquin Valley growers and farm groups said the law will cost farmworkers money, saying farmers will move to more mechanization or less labor-intensive crops, or cut hours for crews to avoid hitting the overtime threshold.
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.
California employers currently must pay time-and-a half to farmworkers after 10 hours in a day or 60 hours in a week – longer than the overtime pay for other workers who get it after eight hours a day or 40 hours a week.
The new law will gradually lower the number of hours that irrigators, ranch hands and people who tend crops must work before accruing additional compensation. It will take full effect in 2022 for most businesses and in 2025 for farms with 25 or fewer employees.
“The hundreds of thousands of men and women who work in California’s fields, dairies and ranches feed the world and anchor our economy,” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, the author of the bill, said in a statement. “They will finally be treated equally under the law.”
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.
Opponents argued the seasonal nature of farm labor, with long hours crucial to sow and harvest during specific weather and growing periods, 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 people in California.
“The governor has set in motion a chain of events that will cause workers in our fields to lose wages,” said Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of Western Growers. “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’s something entirely worse to dismiss economic reality.”
Farmer Bill Chandler, who has grown peaches in the Selma area for more than 40 years, said he fears some workers, who traditionally travel from out of state, will avoid California.
“They won’t come here if they can only work 40 hours,” Chandler said.
One other possible outcome is the Valley may see a much more rapid shift to crops that can be harvested mechanically, including almonds.
“As it is, a lot of people are already pulling out peaches,” Chandler said. “And this could mean we are going to see more of that.”