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California's agricultural workers' overtime law victory hailed as 'historic'

Agricultural workers will no longer have to work more than 60 hours in a week to earn overtime pay, bringing them in line with labor standards for other industries.

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    Farm workers pick eggplant in the early morning fog on a farm in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., in August.
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Farmworkers in California may have scored a major victory on Monday, after Gov. Jerry Brown signed into a law an overtime bill that would level the playing field between farm work and other industries.

Today, farmworkers in California were required to work at least 10 hours per day, or 60 hours per week, in order to qualify for overtime pay, as opposed to the 40 hours per week that workers in other industries must work. The new overtime law is a progressive step for California farmworkers, reminiscent of early 20th-century labor victories.

"This is a historic day," said the bill's author, Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, according to The Los Angeles Times. "They are finally going to be treated with the same dignity and respect as every other hourly worker."

The law will gradually go into force over the course of several years, beginning in 2019. The current requirement to work 10 hours per day in order to qualify for overtime will decrease by one half hour each year until 2022. Although the law itself will go into force slowly beginning in 2019, with the 10 hours worked per day threshold decreasing by a half hour each year until 2022, for most farms. Businesses with 25 or fewer employees have until 2025 to make the full change.

Labor leaders say that the law, known as AB1066, will set a precedent for other states that have overtime laws similar to California's current structure.

"I'm crying tears of joy after so many years that farmworkers have worked so hard to win a significant victory like this that will dramatically change their lives," said the president of the United Farm Workers union, Arturo Rodriguez.

US Labor Secretary Thomas Perez also commended Governor Brown for his decision.

Yet while proponents say that the legislation is a step forward for farm workers – 80 percent of whom are immigrants, and 90 percent of whom are Latino, according to the L.A. Times – opponents say that it could actually harm workers.

Farms are more likely to hire more workers, with fewer hours each, than to pay existing workers overtime, critics say, meaning that many workers could be deprived of some income. Some, including Republican state Sen. Jim Nielsen, say the law will see workers putting in one full-time shift in the morning and another in the afternoon, at a separate farm, in order to make ends meet.

"Sometimes, the best intentions can have the worst consequences," said Republican Assemblyman Devon Mathis in a statement.

The legislation is akin to laws that were passed in the early 20th century as a result of collective bargaining by unions and the labor movement, which sought to combat long hours and severe conditions, but farmworkers around the country have typically been exempted from similar legislation for decades. However, California was the first state to give its agricultural workers bargaining rights, workers compensation, and unemployment services.

California's agricultural industry, one of the largest in the country, has suffered in recent years due to drought conditions that have made it hard for some farmers to stay afloat.

Exploitation is not uncommon among farm workers, many of whom are immigrants and more vulnerable to labor abuses, including labor trafficking. But workers themselves have helped push for progress, as The Christian Science Monitor's Patrik Jonsson reported in 2015 from Immokalee, Fla.:

A decade-long farm worker-led effort to push corporations such as Walmart and Yum! Foods to demand farmers submit to "clean labor" audits yielded, for the first time, the introduction of shade tents, mandated water and bathroom breaks, and a "penny per pound" bonus that has distributed $22 million so far directly back to tomato pickers over four years.

That can amount to $80 a week for many workers – basically, an extra day's pay per week. Ninety percent of corporate farms that dot the Florida peninsula now submit to the audits, which are performed in the field under the supervision of a retired state judge.

'In the past three years, [the tomato fields in Immokalee] have gone from being the worst to the best,' according to Susan Marquis, dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School in Santa Monica, Calif.

Worker advocates say that better labeling in grocery stores can indicate that they have sourced their produce from ethical growers – including growers who provide workers with fair overtime compensation, as California's farmers now must do.

"We are changing, we can do it, but it's still a challenge," Yesica Ramirez, a former farmworker turned Farmworker Alliance employee, told the Monitor.

In California, labor protections for home care workers also grew on Monday, as Brown permanently extended a 2013 law that requires overtime pay for home-care workers and nannies who work more than nine hours per day.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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