Farm laborers exult, farmers worry about California overtime bill

Farmworker Luis Altamirano shares how overtime pay would change his life

Farmworkers rallied at the Capitol on Thursday before a crucial Assembly vote on overtime pay. Luis Altamirano, who came from Mexico 22 years ago and works on a mushroom farm in Gilroy, shared why he is advocating for the bill.
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Farmworkers rallied at the Capitol on Thursday before a crucial Assembly vote on overtime pay. Luis Altamirano, who came from Mexico 22 years ago and works on a mushroom farm in Gilroy, shared why he is advocating for the bill.

Florentino Reyes had stood in the warm sun outside the Capitol, joining scores of farmworkers who gathered to persuade lawmakers to approve unprecedented overtime pay legislation for California’s agricultural laborers.

On Tuesday, Reyes, 48, of Madera returned to his back-bending job picking tomatoes in the broiling heat of the lower Central Valley. He had forfeited a day’s income to come to Sacramento on Monday. But the farmworker, who has spent decades harvesting California produce, was feeling hopeful even as his body ached.

The Legislature on Monday sent Gov. Jerry Brown a potential historic expansion of overtime rules for farmworkers. Assembly Bill 1066 would provide time-and-a-half pay for farm laborers working more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week, and double pay for those working more than 12 hours a day.

In his long career, Reyes has worked those sorts of hours, sometimes week after grueling week.

“For those of us who work in the farms, we are out there in the hot sun, doing the work that nobody else wants to do,” said Reyes, speaking in Spanish on a cellphone. “Our work impacts us physically. But if the governor signs this, it will raise our lives. It will honor us for doing this work.”

While agricultural business groups protested the legislation, warning of dire economic consequences for farmers and field hands alike, Fresno County grower John Chandler on Tuesday was expressing his own concerns.

“I’m disappointed by the outcome of the vote,” said Chandler, whose family’s Chandler Farms in Selma produces peaches, plums, grapes, mandarins and almonds. “I think it is going to have a negative effect on our farm employees. Our margins aren’t large enough to accommodate all that overtime. So growers are going to have to remain viable by keeping workers within 40 hours a week.

“From a farmer perspective, how do we survive as an industry that uses a lot of labor? What are we going to do?”

Reyes is earning $14 an hour on a temporary contract in the tomato fields. More commonly, he earns $10 an hour in seasonal work on numerous farms. His wife, Flora, 45, a grape harvester, averages $9 or $10 in pay for nine-hour shifts, six days a week and never with overtime pay.

Under California law, agricultural workers earn overtime if they work more than 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week. If Brown signs AB 1066, the new rules will phase in the new pay hikes over six years and allow the governor to suspend them if the economy falters.

Reyes is already counting on increased annual earnings so that he can help his daughter, a student at Madera Community College, and also send money to his mother in Mexico. “It means so much to me because I can maintain our home here and also help my family,” Reyes said. “Normally, at $10 an hour, there’s not much I can do.”

United Farm Workers of America spokesman Marc Grossman said agricultural interests have long “been loudly complaining about serious labor shortages and not being able to find enough workers to harvest their crops.”

Grossman said the California legislation now stands to eliminate an agricultural worker exclusion from federal overtime rules that has existed since the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. As a result, he said, farm producers may soon realize they will need to pay up – and pay overtime – to retain the laborers they have.

Farmworkers “are going to get overtime after eight hours – and after 78 years of an unjust exclusion – just like other workers who labor outside, such as construction workers or utility workers,” Grossman said. “And the growers will live with it just like other employers have lived with it for 78 years.”

However, Rosa Acevedo, a farmworker near Stockton, is skeptical that employers will respect the new legislation, even if Brown signs it into law.

Until quitting recently to have a baby girl, Acevedo, 29, was earning up to $9.25 an hour picking grapes in San Joaquin County. Her husband, Jaime Roque, 39, is also a farmworker. She says she plans to return to work in six months, hiring an inexpensive baby sitter for their new daughter, Helen, because their family needs two farm incomes – with overtime or without.

“This is a good law. It could be really good for us,” Acevedo said of the overtime bill. “But my fear is the (farm) companies won’t respect this. They won’t pay us for the extra hours we work. That makes me worry.”

Also worried is Arcadio Castro, 62, a longtime supervisor at Chandler Farms. Castro says his employers take care of him: He is among their top paid farm laborers, earning $17 an hour. He generally works more than 50 hours a week and bunks down in on-site housing.

Castro says he fears Chandler Farms will indeed have to cut his hours and that his earnings will shrink.

“I don’t know yet how it is going to work for me,” Castro said. Other laborers there, who earn $11 an hour for 50-plus hours a week, worry they may have to pick up second jobs if they are held to working 40 hours a week.

But Madera County farmworker Guadalupe Luna, 47, who works in the same tomato fields as Reyes, spoke effusively about the overtime bill – even though Brown so far has made no promise to sign the legislation.

Under ever-challenging economic conditions, Luna and his farmworker wife, Candida Martinez, have raised six sons: two who have also gone into farm labor, one who’s a student at California State University, Fresno, and three others still at home.

“I am so happy, so content this law has passed,” Luna said. “It’s better for me. It’s better for my family. It’s better for putting food on my table. I feel like we’ve finally getting justice, and peace and happiness. I have confidence in the governor.”

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