Long Hours May Soon Pay Better for California Farmworkers

A bill passed by the state legislature would make overtime pay kick in sooner for farm employees.
(Photo: Martin Sundberg/Getty Images)
Aug 30, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

California’s long-struggling farmworkers, who labor in harsh conditions to harvest more than a third of all vegetables grown in the U.S. and two-thirds of our fruits and nuts, are one big step closer to getting the bump in pay they deserve.

On Monday, the California Assembly passed a measure that would require that farmworkers be paid the same overtime as other hourly workers in the state. Previously, farmworkers were only eligible to receive time and a half after 10 hours of work in a day or 60 hours in a week; the new bill, which was already passed by the California Senate, puts those numbers in line with the state’s broader wage laws that require that overtime be paid for work in excess of eight hours in a day or 40 hours a week. The legislation now heads to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown, who has not publicly said whether he’ll sign it.

On the face of it, the bill would seem to do no more than erase a nonsensical—and patently unfair—division between farmworkers and other hourly laborers in California. Yet it proved to be one of the more controversial pieces of legislation introduced this session, and its passage came after the measure’s primary sponsor, Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, D–San Diego, resorted to some extraordinary procedural maneuverings to bring it back from all-but-certain legislative death.

Labor advocates praised the measure, with the United Farm Workers, for example, pointing out that farmworkers have been excluded from receiving fair overtime pay for almost 80 years.

But as you might expect, California’s powerful agriculture industry sees the situation differently.

Although the overtime bill gives growers seemingly more than enough time to comply with the new overtime pay regulations—until 2022 for large farms and until 2025 for farms with 25 employees or fewer—the state’s ag lobby has resorted to the same overdramatic, sky-is-falling arguments employed by any industry battling similar wage legislation. Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, professed himself “extremely disappointed” in the move by the California Assembly. He warned that the bill would place California farms “at an even further competitive disadvantage internationally and with other states” while at the same time hurting farmworkers because growers would inevitably be forced to cut back on the number of hours given to workers.

It’s an argument that’s been taken up by some local growers as well. Jeff Merwin, a third-generation farmer and president of the Yolo County Farm Bureau, told Capital Public Radio in Sacramento this week that if the overtime bill becomes law, he wouldn’t be able to pay his farmworkers time and a half for more than 40 hours a week. The farmworkers, Merwin said, are “being fed this utopian line about how it’ll be great. You’ll get all this overtime because they’ll pay it—they’ll pay it. How?”

“I’m not the Grinch here,” Merwin continued. “All I’m saying is it’s economics 101. If the money’s not there, you can’t pay it, and the money is not there.”

It would seem a compelling point coming from a grower on the front lines. But is it accurate? Philip Martin, an agricultural labor economist at the University of California, Davis, has crunched the numbers and found that while growers receive, on average, about 28 percent of the cost consumers pay at the supermarket for fresh fruits and veggies, they only pass on about a third of that to farmworkers, as National Geographic reported earlier this year. This makes hired farmwork one of the lowest-paid occupations in the country, with most farmworkers making less than $20,000 per year—which is below the federal poverty level for a family of three, according to federal labor statistics.

A lack of specific employment data makes determining the ultimate cost of California’s farmworker overtime bill to consumers almost impossible, according to Martin. But in a separate analysis of the impact of raising the minimum hourly wage in California to $15 an hour—including for farmworkers—the economist found that wage hike, seemingly much larger than the new overtime standards, would raise the grocery bill of the average American family by a whopping $1.76 per month.