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California farmworkers could see overtime expanded in the next decade after historic Assembly vote

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) center, tells farmworkers and their supporters that he would do everything in his power to get the farmworker overtime bill passed. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) center, tells farmworkers and their supporters that he would do everything in his power to get the farmworker overtime bill passed. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

In a historic win for farmworkers, California lawmakers on Monday passed legislation that would expand overtime pay for more than 825,000 laborers who bring produce to stores and tables across the state.

AB 1066, authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), calls for a four year phase-in of new overtime rules beginning in 2019, ultimately resulting in overtime pay for more than eight hours of work in the fields in 2022. It is headed to Gov. Jerry Brown after it was approved 44-32. 

The decision followed another intense showdown on the floor of the state Assembly, where a similar proposal died in June four votes short of the majority it needed to pass.

As the vote was tallied, applause broke out inside the Assembly chamber and in an overflow room, where more than 100 farmworkers watched the debate on a livestream feed. 

Outside the Assembly floor, Gonzalez exchanged warm embraces with workers and labor union leaders. "These workers have been the face of this bill," she said. “They're the ones who pushed it, not just today but for decades in California."

Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America, which sponsored the measure, lauded the workers who came to the Capitol, losing a day of work, to, as he put it, “be able to witness history."

"These are the men and women who every day ensure that we have fruit, vegetables and wine on our tables," he said.

During what was an emotional debate, supporters of the bill framed the legislation as a matter of human rights and dignity of work, saying farm laborers deserved the same protections as the vast majority of workers. 

Assemblyman Jose Medina (D-Riverside) called the vote an opportunity to correct a wrong against a subset of workers that would do more to honor Cesar Chavez than any ceremony, walk or statue.

Assemblyman Tony Thurmond (D-Richmond) said it was about a simple equation: “A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”

“This is not an attack on those who employ farmworkers,” Thurmond said. “But this is in fact what farmworkers have asked us to do. They have asked us to give them dignity, and we have the opportunity to make history today—history that has been 80 years in the making.”

Opponents said they were frustrated with rhetoric that implied farmers did not care about their workers, calling the bill purely symbolic. In a critique similar to those used by opponents of increasing the minimum wage, they argued it could backfire on farmworkers, as it saddled farmers and growers with higher costs and could force them to limit work hours and hire more employees.

“We are asking our farmers to compete in a global market with a higher cost than any other industry,” said Assemblywoman Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield).

Assemblyman James Gallagher (R-Nicolaus) argued the bill ignored the will of "people with their hands in the dirt."

“This bill means they will get less hours, that they will have less money in their pockets,” he said.

The Western Growers Association called the Assembly decision a major disappointment, calling it “short-sighted policy.”

"The members who voted for this bill have placed California farms at an even further competitive disadvantage internationally and with other states," Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif said in a statement.

The issue of farmworker overtime festered in recent weeks into one of the most contentious at the end of a two-year session that has been marked by major internal Democratic strife, with rifts growing between those members aligned with business interests and those allied with labor.

Gonzalez quietly revived her proposal against this backdrop, pushing past the normal procedures used to introduce legislation by replacing the language of an unrelated bill.

United Farm Workers argued it corrected an injustice farmworkers have lived with since they were first exempted from federal minimum wage and overtime standards nearly eight decades ago.

But prominent business groups, led by the California Farm Bureau Federation and a coalition of agricultural producers, countered its provisions further burdened farmworkers already dealing with increased regulations and an ongoing water crisis.

Emotions flared Thursday when hundreds of farmworkers arrived at the Capitol as the state Assembly had been primed to take its final vote. For reasons that are in dispute, the lower house abruptly adjourned without ever taking up the issue, and although Gonzalez contended she had the 41 votes she needed to get the bill passed, the lack of action suggested she did not have the support.

California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount), who rose to the floor in support of the bill and last week promised to do everything in his power to get it passed, said he spent the weekend having conversations and going over wage data with lawmakers who held concerns.

Of the final vote, he said he felt "a tremendous sense of history, a tremendous sense of us doing something right."

Rendon said Gov. Jerry Brown has not given him an answer when asked if he will support but the legislation, but Rendon said he felt the governor would be thoughtful.

"When you look at farmworkers they are some of the most vulnerable employees in our state," he said.

At the Capitol, Zulma Priego, 40, said she and her three children would benefit from the decision. "I'm very emotionally moved," she said. "We have been struggling for this for many years... Today we took a step forward."

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