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Overtime Laws Are Affecting California Agricultural Workers and Growers

California farm workers stand to lose $180 (15 hours) weekly income under 2017 legislation introduced by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego. The workers will earn overtime pay after 8 hours a day and/or 40 hours a week instead of the standard pay for 10-hour days and 60-hour work weeks. The rules will be enforced in 2022 for agricultural workers on farms with more than 25 employees and in 2025 for agricultural businesses with 25 or less employees.

The agricultural law passed in 2016 eliminated the exemption for overtime after eight hours in one day for managers and family members and also eliminated exemptions for agricultural irrigators and truck drivers. The 2017 legislation puts an additional burden on California growers who are now at a competitive disadvantage with other produce-growing states.

According to a Grower-Shipper Association (GSA) survey, which received responses from more than 66 percent of its 400 members, found that 80 percent of farms plan to reduce production costs by shifting to mechanization and less labor-intensive crops.

“In California in particular, agriculture is at a competitive disadvantage because we are subject to lots of laws and regulations, more so than other states,” said James Bogart, GSA’s president and general counsel. “It makes it a challenge for farmers to operate.”

The Almond Alliance of California joined a coalition of agriculture and other business groups to oppose the bill, which passed by a narrow margin. The Alliance and other groups continue to build relationships with legislators and educate them in the realities of the industries and the challenges facing worker communities.

According to the Los Angeles Times, California farmworkers who work full time earn about $30,000 a year –about half the average pay in the state. Most work fewer hours. Despite the rising pay (up to $16 an hour) native-born Americans are still not interested in the work. Ninety percent of California’s agricultural workers are foreign born and more than half are undocumented. President Obama’s crack-down on immigration and President Trump’s hard line have created an agricultural labor shortage that is now called “urgent.”

Agricultural business are making difficult choices such as growing cheaper fruits and vegetables, moving operations abroad, importing workers under a special visa program, or mechanizing operations so fewer workers will be needed.

California is more attuned to workers’ rights than many other states, particularly states with large agricultural operations. Yet, they are walking a fine line between workers’ benefits and profits. They must compete not only with other workers in the region, but internationally. Berries, for example, can be produced cheaper in Asia and then shipped to the U.S. With U.S. production costs 50 percent labor and wage laws making it difficult to make cuts in the hourly wage, producers are turning more to mechanization and crops that are less labor intensive.

This will result in fewer jobs for migrant workers, whose lives are already difficult. Their life expectancy averages 49 years, few have access to medical care, nutrition is often inadequate, and housing is typically described as “deplorable.” Even so, many foreign-born workers find lives as agricultural workers in the U.S. more bountiful – and often safer – than the lives they left behind. As the balance shifts between worker benefits and farm profits, agricultural workers need to know their rights and insist upon them. These rights include the following:

  • Employees have the right to information about the wages and working conditions they will experience in writing and in a language the employee understands;
  • Employees have the right to be paid on time for at least the minimum wage;
  • Employees have the right to safe transportation, and if there is a fee for transportation to the job site, the fee must be made known to the worker before it is deducted from their pay;
  • Employees have the right to breaks, and if working outside on a hot days, break areas must be in the shade;
  • Employees have the right to safe housing if this is included in their benefits;
  • Employees have the right to potable drinking water in the fields that is readily accessible with drinking cups that are not shared with other workers;
  • Employees have the right to well maintained toilet and hand washing facilities with at least one private toilet per 20 workers plus an adequate supply of water, soap, and single-use towels.

The law firm of Aiman-Smith & Marcy focuses on employment law, consumer fraud and class actions in California. Please contact us if you have concerns about your worker rights.