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California lays down 'historic marker' for farm workers

New thinking

A first-of-its-kind law mandates overtime pay for farm workers after a 40-hour work week. It points to how far the pendulum has swung toward raising wages for the poor in blue states.  

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    Farm workers pick strawberries in the early morning fog on a farm in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.
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In a historic move Monday, California became the first state to require that its farm workers receive overtime pay for working more than 40 hours a week. 

Supporters of the new law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) Monday, heralded it as the culmination of a nearly 80-year effort to give farm workers the same wage rights as almost every other hourly worker in the country. Since Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, agricultural laborers have been exempt from overtime laws.

While three states – Hawaii, Maryland, and Minnesota – require some forms of overtime pay for agricultural laborers, California is the first to lower the threshold to eight hours a day or 40 hours a week.

Critics call the law misguided, saying it will force some growers to move out of state and others to cut workers’ hours.

But the move fits into a broader trend of Democratic-led states pushing up wages for the poorest Americans amid concerns that income inequality has worsened. The “Fight for 15” movement has seen 26 states and the District of Columbia increase their minimum wage since January 2014, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the struggle for increases in minimum wage around the country also makes this a little bit more palatable,” says Angela Cornell, director of the Labor Law Clinic at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, N.Y. “There is really an understanding and appreciation for the fact that it’s very, very challenging for workers to get by with pay that is so low.”

Expanding that movement to the agricultural sector marks a milestone, some say.

“Conditions have gotten increasingly bad [for farm workers] in a lot of respects,” says Devra Weber, an associate professor of history at the University of California, Riverside. “This really is a historic marker in an attempt to improve conditions for farm workers in a time that’s very rough for workers as a whole.”

The new law is expected to impact more than 825,000 laborers in America’s largest farming state. California’s agricultural industry was valued at $54 billion last year, while the state’s farm workers made an average of less than $16,000 a year, according to The Desert Sun, a Palm Springs, Calif., newspaper.

More overtime ... less money?

Yet farmers and Republican lawmakers argue that the law is not in the workers’ best interests. 

“This bill means they will get less hours, that they will have less money in their pockets,” said Assemblyman James Gallagher (R), arguing against the bill last month, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The new rules will be phased in over a four-year period beginning in 2019. Given how dramatically food prices fluctuate from year to year, farmers say they try to keep operating costs as low as possible. Keeping workers on the same schedule and paying more for overtime isn’t an option for many.

Another provision of the law – mandating a maximum six-day work week – also cuts into seasonal workers’ pocketbooks, says Joe Del Bosque, owner of Del Bosque Farms on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

“My employees, they’re not going to be happy with that,” he says. “What I hear from them all the time is they want to work as many hours as they can because it’s a short season and the rest of the year they’re not working as much.”

At his farm, seasonal workers have been working seven days a week since the end of June. Requiring them to take a day off would reduce their weekly take by more than $100, he says.

“That’s the irony in this thing,” he continues. The law “is going to make people lose money because it’s the right and moral thing to do.”

The longer-term impact will be a loss of market share to other regions with less generous, or nonexistent, wage laws, says Jack Vessey, president of Vessey and Company, a farm in the Imperial Valley just a few miles from Mexico and Arizona.

“My direct competition is 40 miles away, [and] their laws are a … lot different than my laws,” he says. “I guarantee there’s going to be more product going to Mexico and Arizona.”

Righting historic wrongs

Some experts question whether the law will have such an onerous effect on California farmers, however. The state is in the midst of an agricultural labor shortage, says J. Edward Taylor, director of the Center on Rural Economics of the Americas and the Pacific Rim. So wages were likely to increase for farm workers anyway, he argues.

“From a social justice point of view, it’s a very significant piece of legislation,” he says. But “in this kind of environment, a regulation like this is less significant than it would be in a labor-abundant environment.”

To proponents of the law, it rights a series of wrongs dating back to before World War II.

“To work 10 hours a day, six days a week is not physically possible. This gives them the opportunity to not have to work so much,” says Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers of America, which sponsored the bill. “But if they do, fine. At least they will be compensated,”

These days, he continues, “people are much more conscious about the sacrifices that farm workers make.”

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