Gov. Jerry Brown has signed into law the controversial Assembly Bill 1066, which phases in overtime pay for agriculture workers over four years starting in 2019.
“This is very just,” said Rosario Castañeda, who has been an hourly strawberry worker in Oxnard for several years. “They owe us a lot. This is a just struggle, a just law for me and my co-workers.”
The bill, which Brown signed Sept. 12, allows for growers with 25 employees or less to delay the increases for an additional five years and the increased wages will go back into local economies, said state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara.
“Clearly these are folks who spend all the money they make for their basic necessities,” Jackson said. “I know there’s some concern among some of our businesses and certainly we know that farm labor itself is in high demand at this point in time. I think this is going to be a positive thing for our state.”
Growers throughout the state have strongly opposed the bill, pointing to the cumulative effects of drought, pest threats, pesticide and fertilizer regulations and a labor shortage that have contributed to a multi-billion dollar decline for the industry throughout the state.
As the only state with a daily overtime requirement and “one of only five that has an ag overtime requirement, California faces stiff competition from other states and internationally,” said Matthew Allen, director of California government affairs for Western Growers Association.
“It’s going to be a tough decision for growers,” Allen said, including options like cutting back on acreage and reducing hours for farm workers, but “none of those decisions have a really good impact on farmers, unfortunately.”
The average age of farm owners is also trending toward retirement, he said, making it a choice for many whether they want to continue to farm or sell the land.
“Agriculture will always have a place in California,” Allen said. “This is a question of how difficult will we continue to make it for our farms to remain viable and successful in California, both in conventional and organic growing.”
Rather than decreasing production, the added incentive for farm workers could help mitigate the effects of the labor shortage, said Roman Pinal, regional director of United Farm Workers, who sponsored the bill.
“We think that once this thing works out, the added advantage of creating more sustainability in the labor force is an economic advantage to the growers,” Pinal said. “We welcome any conversation with the agriculture industry to think about how to develop that sustainable labor force.”
Many growers this year faced losses as a lack of labor forced them to plough under strawberries that weren’t harvested in time and Castaneda said her farm lost three workers recently to a local recycling plant that offered higher wages.
While it is possible under the current law to work 12 consecutive 10-hour days without overtime, Pinal said, most ag workers only clock six or seven hours a day and are most productive in the first half of the morning.
“This is about equality under the law,” he said. “Every industry has figured out how to usher in the 8-hour day and to compensate their workers time and half when they demand, when they require, more time.”
Castañeda said she doesn’t think her hours will be cut, but, if they were, it would mean more time to spend with her family. Her children are grown now but many of her coworkers still have young children and working fewer hours would mean more time to help them with homework or see them on weekends.
During harvest, hours are often longer, Allen said, and the seasonality of the industry has been the reason for the exemption so far.
“Our folks are very subject to the international marketplace and other pressures so it’s not as easy as saying they’ll pay the cost increase for the overtime,” he said, adding that some farmers have expressed interest in moving their operations to other growing areas with fewer regulations.
The phased in schedule takes into account the hardships faced by the agriculture industry but the change is “cautious, thoughtful but long overdue,” Jackson said. “Why this has been the exemption, that farm workers who do rough, rough work are exempted from getting overtime, is something that I’ve never totally understood.”
Consistent with the scheduled minimum wage increases, the governor can choose to suspend them briefly in the event of other stressors on the industry.
“It is very difficult work on a good day but when you pay people a better wage, more people are willing to do the work,” Jackson said. “We’re going to see more immigration reform recognizing the importance of these workers to our agricultural economy, which is robust and needs to stay robust.”
• Contact Marissa Nall at [email protected]