At harvest time each year many farmworkers around the state work 16 hours a day and sometimes seven days a week. Long hours with little time to recover mean aching muscles and few hours for family. On Monday the California Senate approved a bill that hopes to change that by extending overtime rules to those who work in the fields. But as FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports the bill is also a big source of controversy.
Earlier this summer California lawmakers voted down a bill to give farmworkers in California extra overtime pay. But now the idea behind that bill is on the table again under a new piece of legislation by San Diego Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez.
“We have people who are doing the hardest work in the most oppressive conditions quite frankly who are exempt from the eight hour a day standard that every other hourly worker enjoys," Gonzalez says.
California is one of the few places in the country the requires overtime after 10 hours a day and for any time worked on a seventh day of work. Her bill is simple. Give farmworkers overtime after eight hours of work a day in a 40 hour work week. If the bill becomes law it would phase in the change over a four-year period starting in January.
“We’ve been working hard in California slowly throughout the decades to get to a position where we do treat farmworkers better, but they’re not treated equally," Gonzalez says.
Labor rights groups like the United Farm Workers of America agree and say this bill really comes down to human rights.
"These are human beings that work extreme hard, they’re professionals,"says Arturo Rodriguez president of the organization. "They should be treated like any other worker in the country. Without them we wouldn’t have the food supply we have every single day.”
Farmers don’t really like this bill. It’ll require them to pay workers more or to shift how they operate. But Rodriguez says it’s time for agricultural workers to be seen as skilled laborers, not second class citizens.
“It’s time to stop giving farmworkers the short end of the stick," Rodriguez says. "Give them the ability to improve their lives. They want the same thing for their children as consumers want for theirs.”
Fresno County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Jacobsen says the farmers and ranchers he represents have been very vocal on the bill. He doesn’t think these changes will be good for Ag in the Golden State.
“The fact of the matter is that the combination of the minimum wage increase and this overtime bill has the potential of changing the dynamics of what California agriculture looks like," Ryan Jacobsen.
In April a report by the consulting firm Highland Economics estimates that the changes would decrease farmworker pay by 16 percent in the state. That’s around $1.5 billion not in these worker’s pockets. If this bill passes the study says there will be clear winners and losers. Fresno County Almond Farmer Matthew Efird thinks both farmers and farmworkers will lose out. His workers on average work 65 hours a week during peak season.
“Immediately my employees are going to see an effect in their monthly pay because we’re going to try and minimize our cost and stay at the regulated 40 hours," Efird says.
Efird’s crews are busy harvesting almonds by driving machines down lanes of trees. The operator stops the vehicle at each tree and two padded metal claws grab the trunk and shake the tree. It’s like a hailstorm of almonds. Efird says if the bill becomes law he may have to scale back his growing operation.
"We would go from harvesting 2,500 plus acres of almonds down to harvesting our own 700," says Efird. "We would just run more iron in shorter windows, but I’m in a unique position where I can do that. Other operations aren’t going to be able to make that adjustment.”
Efird also says it will be difficult for farmers to sell commodities at higher prices because of global prices for goods. But Bruce Goldstein with the group Farmworker Justice says farmers are making too many excuses at the expense of some of the nation’s most hardworking people.
“Employers will say the workers really don’t want it because they will get fewer hours," says Goldstein. "That just hasn’t been the case. Overtime pay provisions have benefited workers and those benefits should be extended to farmworkers.”
If farmworkers are to join the likes of other professions in the state then then the House will have to join the Senate in approving the bill during the current session before it reaches the governor's desk.