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In historic move, Gov. Jerry Brown expands overtime pay for California farmworkers

Gov. Jerry Brown signed historic legislation Monday that would gradually add hundreds of thousands of California farmworkers to the ranks of those who are paid overtime after eight hours on the job or 40 hours in a single week,  closing out one of the year’s most intense political battles in Sacramento.

Leaders of the United Farm Workers of America, which sponsored the overtime bill, called Brown’s decision a victory in a nearly 80-year quest to establish broad rights and protections for farm laborers. But the move shocked the agricultural community, which lobbied heavily against its provisions, saying the new law would hurt a valuable state industry already on the decline.

Assembly Bill 1066, authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), calls for a phase-in of new overtime rules over four years beginning in 2019.

It will lower 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 will phase in a 40-hour standard workweek for the first time. The governor will be able to suspend any part of the process for a year depending on economic conditions. 

Gonzalez on Monday lauded the governor’s decision, saying the new rules would provide equal protections for California farmworkers, more than 90% of whom are Latino and 80% of whom are immigrants.

“This is a historic day,” Gonzalez said. “They are finally going to be treated with the same dignity and respect as every other hourly worker.”

Brown’s signature followed a pair of intense showdowns on the floor of the state Assembly, where a similar proposal died in June a few votes short of the majority it needed to pass. Gonzalez then resurrected the bill in the final month of the legislative session, and Brown offered no explanation for his decision to sign the proposal.

“We are letting the signature speak for itself,” said Deborah Hoffman, a spokesperson for the governor.

Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers union, said he was grateful to the lawmakers who voted for the legislation and to Brown for "making a tough decision like this and changing the course of history."

AB 1066 "would give license to farmworkers in other states fighting for the same thing," Rodriguez said. "I'm crying tears of joy after so many years that farmworkers have worked so hard to win a significant victory like this that will dramatically change their lives." 

The legislation had drawn wide support from a diverse group of associations and political leaders, including Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. 

U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who tweeted his support for the bill last month, on Monday commended Brown for ensuring strong and sensible safeguards for farmworkers and their families. 

“People who work on farms and in our homes are some of America’s most vulnerable workers,” he said in a statement. “We all depend on their work to feed and care for our families, but far too often they can’t afford to put food on their own dinner tables.”

But farmers and agricultural lobby groups expressed deep disappointment with the new laws. In a critique similar to those used by opponents of increasing the minimum wage, they had argued that the legislation could backfire on farmworkers, as it saddles farmers and growers with higher costs and could force them to limit work hours and hire more employees.

Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said growers would have no choice but to reduce employee hours and increase food prices for consumers. Some also could leave the state.

Farmers will struggle to “compete with products out of Mexico where farmworkers there make in a week what farmworkers here make in a day,” he said. “And this is not a good day for farmworkers who want to live that California dream of working a lot of hours to buy a home and do things they wouldn’t be able to do in Mexico.”

State Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) said there was no doubt the impact would be negative. 

"I am disappointed at the insensitivity to this vital industry,” he said in a statement. “And sadly I say, stay tuned for loss in salary for workers and higher prices for consumers."

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 first established minimum wage and overtime standards but excluded all agricultural workers, the majority of whom at the time were African American.

In California, the Legislature exempted farmworkers from earning overtime pay in 1941. That prohibition remained unchanged until 1976, when the state Industrial Welfare Commission ordered overtime pay for farmworkers after 10 hours on the job on any single day and 60 hours in a week. Hourly workers in other jobs across the state receive overtime pay after eight hours a day and 40 hours a week.

There have been fights over the issue twice before in recent years. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar overtime bill in 2010. In 2012, another bill passed through both houses of the Legislature, but was killed when it came back to the Assembly for a final vote.

Monday’s signature on the overtime bill placed a bookend of sorts on Brown’s legacy of efforts to address the needs of California farmworkers.

During his first year in office in 1975, the governor signed the landmark law allowing field laborers to unionize, forging a close alliance with Cesar Chavez, the late founder of the United Farm Workers.

Chavez then placed Brown’s name into nomination for the presidency at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, proclaiming the young governor knew “that work is a cornerstone to a man’s dignity.”

But Brown angered UFW members in 2011, his first year back in Sacramento, by vetoing a bill to strengthen the union’s ability to organize farmworkers.

“I think the relationship is complicated and it’s had its ups and downs,” said Darrell Steinberg, the former leader of the state Senate who wrote the vetoed bill. 

Brown ultimately signed a narrower version of the bill, but then vetoed yet another bill pertaining to farm labor contracts in 2014.

Steinberg said he believes Brown’s signature Monday on the expansion of farmworker overtime showed the difference for the governor in “the intricacies of labor law versus how visceral it is to put real money in working people’s pockets.”

Brown himself voiced a similar sentiment this year when agreeing to a gradual increase of the statewide minimum wage to $15 an hour, calling it “a matter of economic justice.”

jazmine.ulloa@latimes.com; john.myers@latimes.com

Follow @jazmineulloa and @johnmyers on Twitter

 

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