Sacramento Democrats Push to Expand Farmworker Overtime

Migrant workers harvest strawberries at a farm March 13, 2013 near Oxnard, California.
File Photo: JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images
Newport Beach, CA

Despite the minimum wage for farmworkers jumping from $8 to $10 since June 2014, Sacramento Democrats are going all-in to capture additional overtime pay for farmworkers during the countdown to the 2016 election.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) announced the start of a 24-hour fast over the weekend in support of expanding farmworker overtime pay. The Los Angeles Times reports that Democrats hope they can revive AB 2757, a bill that would have expanded their takeover of how farmworkers are paid, but which fell four votes short in the State Assembly in June.

Gonzalez was able to amend an unrelated bill, AB 1066, that is now pending in the Democrat-controlled Senate, and could pass as early as August 22.

The United Farm Workers-sponsored legislation would radically reshape overtime rules by requiring that the current 10-hour-day threshold for farmworker overtime be lowered by a half an hour each year until it reaches the standard eight-hour day by 2022. It also would phase in a 40-hour standard workweek for the first time.

Due to labor shortages, most California farmworkers are already earning well above the minimum wage, the Capital Press reports. For instance, the average wage for a strawberry harvest worker is $12.56 an hour, and us higher during the peak months, said Carolyn O’Donnell, spokeswoman for the California Strawberry Commission, the Capital Press reports.

Gov. Jerry Brown unleashed a blizzard of minimum wage changes during his six years in office, including the signing of the so-called “living wage,” which will raise the California’s mandatory minimum to $15 an hour by 2022.

Under another legislative initiative known as AB 1513, Brown extended the $10 minimum wage beginning on January 1, 2016 to require so-called “non-productive” rest and recovery time periods for piece-rate farmworkers be separated out during the day and paid at the current minimum wage of $10 an hour.

Brown’s administration also implemented new minimum wage regulations in January that caused many salaried farm supervisors that do not earn at least $3,446.67 per month, or $20 per hour, to fall outside the overtime exemption for “white collar” under California law and supervisory employees. That means they now must be paid overtime.

Democrats filled the halls of the Capitol with farmworkers in June. They sang in Spanish, quoted Bible verses, and hoisted Caesar Chavez signs in an effort to shame Republicans as selfish and racists.

But with opposition to an expansion of farmworker overtime coming from the California Farm Bureau Federation and a coalition of agricultural producers, rural Democrats from farming communities were unwilling to support overtime rules they feared would hurt the interests of farmers and farmworkers, the Times reported.

Opponents of the new legislation, which could impact the 829,000 farmworkers in California, argued that farmers in the state’s $54-billion industry are “price takers,” as opposed to “price setters.” That means they must accept the prevailing prices of products that are often determined by unpredictable weather patterns and international competitors.

Due to the combination of a labor crunch and higher minimum wage costs, growers of many commodities that have traditionally been picked by hand are attempting to expand the integration of technology to automate away the labor need.

The California raisin harvest, which has required as many as 60,000 workers during its six-week peak, is rapidly being mechanized, according to a University of California Davis study. In 2014, one-quarter of California’s 185,000 acres of raisin-type grapes were harvested by machine, the university’s migration experts reported.

Bryan Little, director of employment at the California Farm Bureau Federation told the Press, “When you combine this (minimum wage) with the overtime bill … then look at paid sick leave, the Affordable Care Act and piling more and more costs onto employers, eventually you just get to the point where it becomes an unsustainable thing to be able to employ as many people as you do.”