The exploitation of farm labor is one of California’s oldest and most regrettable stories. And it persists, despite hard-won change.
The poorly paid, mostly immigrant workers who pick your lettuce and strawberries and cauliflower may have unions to look out for them now, unlike past generations, but they are still, for example, exempt from laws requiring overtime after eight hours of work in a 40-hour workweek. Farmworkers can’t get time and a half unless they first put in a 10-hour day.
There are reasons for this, some shameful, some pragmatic. And many modern farmers treat their seasonal employees well. But the pay disparity that’s built into the law – a financial break that the state’s multibillion-dollar farm industry and millions of grocery shoppers have come to rely on – invites abuse from bad actors and perpetuates attitudes that verge on the feudal in some corners of the state.
Assembly Bill 1066, by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, would take a step to change that, by gradually imposing the same overtime standards on farm work as in nearly all other industry.
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Farm lobbyists protest that farm labor isn’t like other labor. Payrolls expand and contract due to seasonal rushes, and some small farmers work on razor-thin margins. They argue that mandating overtime after eight hours instead of 10 will just prompt farmers to split workdays into two shifts, or replace labor-intensive crops like lettuce with more acres of high-margin grapes, olives and almonds and use fewer people and more machines.
This may end up being the case. But lots of industries are seasonal, from ski slopes to surf shops, and they manage. And the farm industry has a way of reflexively resisting change, just as the unions representing farm laborers too often default to counterproductive demonization. (Witness Thursday’s photo-op flooding of the Capitol with farmworkers, even though those behind AB 1066 knew it didn’t yet have the votes for passage.)
Most likely, this overtime bill – which phases in over the next six years, with even more time for small farmers – will, after nominal adjustment, simply add a few cents more to the cost of produce. It should pass. If it changes the old narrative and makes farm work more equal, it will be a small price to pay.