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Farmworkers are treated unfairly in California. Sacramento has a chance to right that wrong

The workers in California’s sprawling agricultural fields perform some of the most arduous labor in the state, often in intense heat in the summertime, and often six days a week. Yet for bizarre historical reasons, their overtime protections differ from those of other hourly workers. They don't get extra pay until they’ve put in 10 hours in a day, or 60 hours in a week. That’s patently unfair, and California legislators are in a position to do something about it. 

Farm workers are among the least politically powerful employees in the nation. Mostly immigrants (and many living in the United States illegally), they are easily exploited, yet their work — growing and harvesting the food upon which the rest of us depend — is vital to the economy and to our national well-being. It's unconscionable that they've been nickled-and-dimed for so long. 

The problem can be traced  back to the Great Depression and to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a federal minimum wage and defined overtime. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to exempt farm workers from those protections to secure the Southern votes he needed to get his broader New Deal legislation through Congress. The argument then was framed by race and regionalism — most field workers were African American and working in the South — and by the nature of the work itself. Farm workers often had room and board (of varying quality) provided as part of their compensation, and working hours varied widely with the growing season, making it  difficult for employers to set regular schedules. Also, since most produce was sold locally, some argued that the federal government didn’t have the authority under the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause to regulate local farm wages.

It’s a different agricultural world now, with national food distribution the norm. And despite technological advances, the industry remains labor-intensive. In fact, despite the drought, farm jobs increased in California last year to 441,000, up 36,000 jobs from 2013.  Field and livestock workers average $11.89 an hour, according to the 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Labor Survey, though farm workers typically have jobs only about three quarters of the year. 

And while California state law requires that time-and-a-half be paid after 10 hours worked in one day or 60 hours in a week, that’s far above the eight-hour/40-hour threshold for other hourly workers.

A bill by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) would change that. AB 2757 calls for phasing in overtime protections for agricultural workers beginning next year with a new threshold of 9½ hours a day or 55 hours in a week, then dropping it annually until it reaches eight hours a day or 40 hours a week in 2020. Also beginning in 2020, workers would get double-time pay when they labored in excess of 12 hours in one day. Discussions are under way to amend the bill to delay the calendar by two extra years for small farms, defined as having 25 or fewer workers. While it’s frustrating that it would take so long to fix such a clear inequity, it makes sense to phase the change in over time to lessen any potential shock to the industry. 

Opposition to the legislation comes primarily from farmers and their lobbyists, who argue that farming is fickle, subject to weather and seasons, and thus requires longer working hours at particular times of year and more flexibility in scheduling than other industries. They also say that if the new overtime standard is approved, employers would probably assign each worker fewer hours while hiring more workers overall. Proponents are skeptical, saying it's unlikely the growers would do the training and paperwork necessary to call in extra shifts merely to avoid paying a little more in overtime. But if they do, that means more people getting work rather than taking more hours of a farm worker's day without proper compensation. And if the cost to the public of fair treatment is a few more cents for a package of strawberries, then so be it.

It’s notable, too, that variations of the same arguments emerged decades ago during the fight for the eight-hour day and 40-hour work week. The right call was made then and the economy didn’t crumble. The Legislature should make the right call now. Gonzalez’s measure is expected to move out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee by the end of the week. The full Assembly should approve the measure and send it on to the Senate, and eventually to the governor, who ought to sign it into law. The current standard is a relic of an unfair past, and needs to be fixed.

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