This is the week that California’s progressive values will be put to the test. Are these values genuine? Or do they exclude the state’s most vulnerable workers because legislators typically eager to support labor causes will deny laborers who are poor and of Mexican origin?
That’s where we are in California. It’s 2016, and we’re still arguing about granting the basic right of overtime pay for agricultural workers who labor beyond an eight-hour workday.
A watered-down version of the bill, AB 1066, loaded with concessions, barely squeezed through the state Senate on Monday and is headed to a critical vote Thursday in the Assembly. That’s the same body that shot down the original bill in May.
The bill, by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat, would extend to farmworkers the same overtime rights as every other hourly wage group in California. That means getting paid time and a half for every hour they work over eight in a day or 40 in a week. Working more than 12 hours a day would mean double pay.
So Thursday is a judgment day of sorts in California. How progressive are we really? How much longer will the bluest of states perpetuate an injustice rooted in a shameful past?
Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which established wage protections across the nation. Farmworkers were exempted from some of those basic rights as a nod to legislators from the Jim Crow South who balked at raising the living standards of a then-largely African American farm labor workforce.
Forty years ago, California mandated that farm laborers receive overtime pay if they work more than 10 hours in a day or more than 60 hours in a week. But all these years later, a farmworker population that has been largely of Mexican origin for generations is still exempted from getting overtime pay after an eight-hour workday.
How is this possible? Aren’t farmworkers among the lowest paid laborers in the state? Aren’t they more susceptible to heat stress and pesticide-related illnesses than other occupational groups? Don’t they struggle to access adequate health care?
Yes, yes and yes, according to studies by the California Endowment and the U.S. Public Health Service.
So why are we still debating this issue? Why is an overtime exemption that was a concession to Jim Crow racism still on the books in California?
It begins with a powerful agricultural industry that is virtually recession-proof yet claims that meeting basic overtime standards for its workers will bring the industry to its knees.
“Will this be the straw to break the back of California’s economy?” state Sen. Jeff Stone, a Republican from Temecula, asked Monday in arguing against the bill.
Mind you, this is an industry that has proved stronger than California’s debilitating drought. Farmers generated $56.2 billion in gross revenue in 2014, according to the latest federal data. That was an increase over the $54.3 billion they generated in 2013. Their net income fell 10 percent, because of higher water costs and other issues – but was still the second highest in California history. And farm employment jumped by 7 percent last year.
California continues to feed the world, and the industry profits handsomely.
So why continue to deny overtime to humble workers?
“Mexico’s costs are 25 percent lower than California growers,” Sen. Jim Nielsen, a Gerber Republican, argued Monday.
“Instead of trying to help farmworkers, this would hose farmworkers,” said Sen. Tom Berryhill, a Twain Harte Republican. His point being: If the overtime rules were enacted, farmers would limit worker hours and laborers would make less money.
State Republicans have remained uniformly opposed to changes in farmworker overtime. Every Republican in the Senate voted against the bill Monday, and you can expect the same when the Assembly takes up the issue again this week.
The state GOP gets killed at the ballot box every election cycle, and yet its leaders reflexively carry the water of agricultural interests who have fought farmworker protections for generations. Virtually every farm industry group – from citrus growers to cattlemen to dairy farmers to wine producers to cotton growers – stands in opposition.
That kind of lobbying muscle hasn’t only co-opted Republicans. Otherwise progressive Democrats in the Assembly also voted against the bill the first time around – or found a reason to sneak out of chambers when the vote came down.
It’s a shameful bipartisan spectacle aided by local legislators on both sides of the aisle. That includes Ted Gaines, the Republican senator from El Dorado Hills, who repeated specious industry talking points when he spoke against the bill on the Senate floor. Assemblymen Ken Cooley of Rancho Cordova and Jim Cooper of Elk Grove, both Democrats, voted against the bill in May.
Cooper explained he has lots of agriculture in his district he has to worry about. I have no idea why Cooley voted no, but you can call his office and ask: 916-319-2008.
You also might want to call Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, and ask him why he supports the protection of whales but abstained from the overtime vote in May. His office number is: 916-319-2050.
Other “progressive” Assembly Democrats who voted no or abstained: Evan Low of Campbell; Adrin Nazarian of Los Angeles; and Tom Daly of Anaheim. You can reach Low at 916-319-2028, Nazarian at 916-319-2046, and Daly at 916-319-2069.
As the bill stands now, the new overtime rules would be phased in slowly starting in 2019 and not take full effect until 2022. Employers with 25 workers or fewer would have an extra three years to comply.
Even with the concessions, it took Senate leader Kevin de León a great deal of arm-twisting to get the votes he needed for passage Monday.
“We cannot divorce ourselves from the plight of farmworkers,” de León told his fellow members. “Whenever we have fundraisers at (Sacramento restaurants) Ella or Chops, we are eating food picked by farmworkers … Let’s collectively right this wrong.”
Can Assembly leader Anthony Rendon follow suit?
The Assembly vote fell three shy of approval in May, so Cooley, Bloom, Low, Nazarian and Daly hold its passage in their hands. How progressive are these guys? We’re about to find out.