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Will Well-Intended Farm Bill Be Detrimental to Growers?

A newly enacted California law requires employers with 26 or more workers to pay overtime wages to farmworkers. But many worry that the law will put a financial strain on already struggling farmers, forcing them to cut labor costs.

(TNS) — Editor's Note: This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative — a bilingual, community journalism project funded by the Central Valley Community Foundation and with technology and training support from Microsoft Corp. The collaboration includes The Fresno Bee, Valley Public Radio, Vida en el Valle, Radio Bilingüe and the Institute for Media & Public Trust at Fresno State.



For the past two decades during the harvest season, 58-year-old farmworker Lourdes Cárdenas would wake up at 3 a.m. to get dressed, say her daily prayers and prepare lunch before driving an hour south from her home in Calwa to a farm in Huron. She'd pick crops like cherries, nectarines, and peaches from daybreak until sundown — at least 10 hours a day, six days a week.

There would be days where she wouldn't get home until 7 p.m or 8 p.m., depending on traffic, she said. For many of those years, she was paid minimum wage. There was no overtime pay.

"It's a long work day," she said in Spanish. "I'd get home very late, exhausted. It's very hard work being in the fields."

For years, hundreds of thousands of farmworkers toiling in California's agricultural heartland weren't entitled to overtime pay unless they worked more than 10 hours a day. But that has changed due to a 2016 state law that's been gradually implemented over four years. As of Jan. 1, California law requires that employers with 26 or more employees pay overtime wages to farmworkers after eight hours a day or 40 hours a week.

That means many farmworkers like Cárdenas will now be compensated time-and-a-half for working more than eight hours. It's a change advocates say is long overdue to provide the agricultural labor force with the same protections afforded to other hourly workers. But opponents argue that the law — though well-intentioned — strains farmers who already operate on thin margins and confront other financial challenges. Employers also say the new rules will disadvantage workers, as they'll likely reduce hours in an attempt to cut increasing labor costs.

Under the law, which was authored by Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, farmworkers began in 2019 to gradually receive the same overtime pay as employees in other industries. Farmworkers previously became eligible for overtime benefits after 10 hours, but the law has lowered the threshold for overtime pay by half an hour annually for the past three years, until reaching the standard eight hours this year.

In a Twitter post on Wednesday, Gonzalez said "none of my bills stole my heart more."

The full implementation of the law for larger-scale growers marks the most recent win for labor advocates, who had been running a decades-long campaign to secure overtime pay for farmworkers. California is one of six states, alongside Hawaii, Maryland, Minnesota, New York and Washington, to provide overtime pay to agricultural workers. Many states, however, only provide overtime pay after the 60-hour threshold has been met.

Fresno Growers Concerned About Farmworker Overtime Law



Eriberto Fernandez, the government affairs deputy director at the UFW Foundation, which sponsored the California bill, said the law secures a basic protection for a workforce that has long been exploited. He added that agricultural workers were excluded from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 that gave most employees the right to minimum wage and overtime pay.

"It's a very historic and momentous occasion for farmworkers that they now, for the first time in the history of agricultural labor, have the same rights as all other Californians do," he said. "For the first time since the 1930s, equal overtime pay now also applies to farmworkers."

Fernandez said the law will provide farmworkers with more quality time with their families. He also said farmworkers, many of whom work ten- to twelve-hour shifts during the peak harvest season, will be fairly compensated for their labor.

"This is about leveling the playing field for farmworkers," he said. "We're hoping that this new law now puts farmworkers on equal ground with all other industries in California."

But many growers say the new law could do more damage than good.

Ryan Jacobsen, a farmer and Fresno County Farm Bureau CEO, said the law doesn't address the needs of the farming industry, arguing that agriculture requires a unique set of rules because it is subject to changing weather and seasons. And unlike other businesses, the labor-intensive industry requires more flexibility on scheduling and working, especially during peak harvest times, he said.

"Most of these jobs in the industry are still seasonal in nature and there are times of the year where there's more work than there is in other times of the year," he said. "In the California ag industry, there was always — up until the passage of this bill — an understanding that these employees would be able to make up these hours during these shorter windows because there's not as much availability of farm agricultural work (in other times of the year)."

Daniel Hartwig, a fourth generation grape farmer from Easton who also works as the procurement manager at Woolf Farming, agreed. He said that the law makes an already fickle industry even more complicated for growers.

Growers have been concerned about labor costs increasing, in part due to California regulations, Hartwig said. He said many growers are reducing their employees' hours and transitioning to cultivating other crops that don't require as much human labor. Instead of planting fruit trees, Hartwig has switched over to nuts like almonds and pistachios, he said.

"We can't absorb those additional labor costs," he said. "So we've just kind of refocused on making sure more of our crops are able to be mechanically harvested. Those are the choices we're making. (The law) is hurting farmers, and it's hurting the farm workers as well."

Fresno County broke its own record for agricultural and livestock production in 2020, peaking at more than $7.98 billion, according to the crop report from county Agricultural Commissioner Melissa Cregan. Nuts were among the top earners. Almonds were the county's top-grossing crop, earning $1.25 billion, while pistachios made up $761 million, the report found.

Fernandez, of the UFW Foundation, said it's "unfortunate" that farmers are reducing hours for their employees given the county's record-breaking years.

"These are the same arguments that we hear over and over again about how these laws are going to destroy agribusiness in California," he said. "And if anything, we've seen the opposite — we've seen the California businesses thriving. For them, it's a matter of economics and of profitability. They're choosing to shorten worker hours to save money that they would otherwise have paid for overtime pay."

California Farmworker Wages Increasing



Farmworkers are some of the lowest-paid workers in the U.S, according to a 2021 report from The Economic Policy Institute. On average, farmworkers in 2020 earned about $14.62 per hour, "far less than even some of the lowest-paid workers in the U.S. labor force," the report found. Farmworkers at that wage rate earned below 60 percent compared to what workers outside of agriculture made, according to the report.

In some states though, wages are increasing. California's minimum wage on Jan. 1 rose to $15 an hour for employers with 26 or more employees and increased to $14 an hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees.

Cárdenas is hopeful the new overtime protections and increased minimum wage will help her family in the long run. While she acknowledges that she may lose hours due to the new rules, she said the overtime law is "a huge relief" for farmworkers like her.

"We have been marginalized and mistreated," she said. "But we are workers, just like any other worker. It's sad they didn't value us before. This is a big change."

She said during the busy season farmers may not have a choice but to keep their employees working for longer periods of time, providing workers with a financial cushion they previously didn't have. She hopes it will provide her with the ability to afford her car repairs, rent, food and other utility bills she had struggled to pay in the past.

"This is a great victory and a great triumph for us," she added. "Sometimes, I couldn't even afford food. But now we'll have equal pay."

(c)2022 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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