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Legislation to expand farmworker overtime pay clears the Senate

 (Jazmine Ulloa/Los Angeles Times)
(Jazmine Ulloa/Los Angeles Times)

After an hour of debate, including emotional words from Senate leader Kevin de León, the California Senate on Monday passed a bill that would expand overtime pay for farmworkers.

AB 1066, introduced by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), squeezed out of the Senate floor with a 21-14 vote. It is now headed back to the Assembly, where it faces its most passionate opposition, for a final vote. 

The proposal would roll out new rules for overtime in 2019, lowering the current 10-hour-day threshold for overtime by half an hour each year until it reaches the standard eight-hour day by 2022. It also would phase in a 40-hour standard workweek for the first time.

The United Farm Workers association, which sponsored the bill, says it addresses an injustice inflicted on farmworkers nearly eight decades ago, when they were first exempted from federal minimum wage and overtime standards. The bill has drawn wide and diverse support, including from Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

But prominent business groups, led by the California Farm Bureau Federation and a coalition of agricultural producers, have thrown their political weight against it, saying the legislation saddles farmers and growers with higher costs.

On the Senate floor Monday, discussion echoed the passionate debate in the Assembly, where the bill initially died before Gonzalez revived it two weeks later.

De León framed the issue as a matter of equity, saying it was naked racism that excluded agricultural workers from equal standards decades ago. He urged his colleagues to make right by the men and women who toil under the relentless sun to bring produce to stores and tables across California.

"Their calloused hands feed this nation," he said. "Their strength, their sweat and their determination for a better life have driven our state's $54-billion annual agricultural economy."

Lawmakers in agreement pointed to reports that show most farmworkers are not paid minimum wage, endure abysmal work conditions and have limited healthcare and housing options. 

Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) said it took legislative action to protect farmworkers in the fields, such as ensuring they had rest breaks and access to potable water.

"Every one of those reforms, that my colleagues point to with pride, they were opposed" by agricultural leaders, Monning said.

But lawmakers opposed to the bill argued that California farmers are already struggling with burdensome regulations and the ongoing water crisis. The bill would backfire on hundreds of thousands of workers, they said, as farmers and growers would probably have to limit their hours and hire more employees to avoid overtime costs.

The state, Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) said, already has the strongest laws and regulations to protect farmworkers, who are "aspiring" and "upwardly mobile." New overtime rules would only hinder the state's competitive agriculture industry, he said.

"There is no question that, just as with the minimum wage that passed a few months ago, jobs will be gone or hours will be decreased," Nielsen said. "You are not doing a favor, you are doing harm." 

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