If you want more evidence for my theory that small businesses are simply being thrown under the bus in the current political season, just look at the farmworker overtime bill that nearly passed the General Assembly on Aug. 23.
The proposed rules, which were pulled from a final vote on Aug. 25, would mandate higher hourly wages, a 40-hour week and overtime for farmworkers over the next half-decade or so. Just as with the $15 per hour minimum wage law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this year, this pay bill ignores the plight of the small farmer.
It would add a layer of HR paperwork and oversight to environmental rules and food safety rules that would appear to have a much higher priority.
Growers who can afford it are already thinking about shifting their crops to other states where costs are going to be dramatically lower. Consider, if you will, that someday soon the strawberries that now feed Los Angeles will be grown in Oregon, Utah and Arizona because it is cheaper to harvest three times elsewhere than to grow them year round in Santa Maria or Oxnard.
The problem is particularly vexing for property owners on the Central Coast. By law in Ventura County, and by force of bureaucracy in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, it is getting harder and harder for farmers in a profit squeeze to walk away from the land and sell their property for development.
Ventura County’s SOAR initiative makes it impossible for any small farmer in unincorporated areas to sell his property for development — unless he or she is willing to underwrite the cost of annexation.
For farmers who rent land, the solution is as old as American pie — pick up and move to someplace where costs are lower. As somebody who drives from Colorado to California at least once a year, I can tell you that the I-15 corridor through Utah has wide valleys and fine fields that are beckoning to replace California agribusiness. And did I mention they have very good access to water — something else whose cost is rising in California.
Meanwhile, many of the farmers we talk to suggest the market itself is curing the problem of low farmworker wages — workers are now in short supply and labor costs are rising naturally, so the new mandates will just make things worse.
Plus, many farmers provide housing or housing subsidies that won’t count when wages are calculated by the labor board inspectors.
The minimum wage law’s fatal flaw was that it is a one-size-fits-all solution that will rip through small town restaurants and retail shops and devastate the local sourcing of products while creating a permanent underclass of part-time workers. And it will create a much bigger differential between the Golden State and the federal minimum wage, which is stuck at $7.25 per hour with no sign of an increase.
The farmworker overtime bill has a similar challenge. By raising the cost of labor without any thought about overall farm income or state competitiveness, it will drive many small farmers out of business. And it will perpetuate the same permanent underclass of part-time or near-full-time workers who can only be managed by a large corporate interest with fine-grained HR policies.
And it will speed mechanization which will ultimately reduce the number of farmworker jobs.
Farm-to-table producers will survive but their products will move up market to the luxury category as the only way to cover costs. The only people who can afford to eat their products will be the region’s wealthy retirees, who are also increasingly the only ones who can afford to buy homes on the Central Coast.
For the rest of us, what used to pass for locally sourced, healthy food will be mechanized, homogenized and increasingly imported, just like everything else.
Congratulations, California Legislature.
You’ve come close to making Utah, Arizona and Oregon farmers rich. And thousands of California’s small farmers, their vendors and their workers, will be poorer for your efforts if the bill goes through.
• Reach Editor Henry Dubroff at [email protected]