Capitol Alert

How Jerry Brown and farmers settled a major wage dispute

Farmworkers pull up irrigation drip lines in a garlic field in Fresno County in May.
Farmworkers pull up irrigation drip lines in a garlic field in Fresno County in May. rbenton@sacbee.com

In the waning days of the recently concluded legislative session, the Brown administration, business and labor officials emerged from dozens of hours of private meetings and conference calls with a plan to resolve a festering dispute over pay for farmworkers and other low-wage laborers in California.

The solution, passed in a bill on the Legislature’s final day, reflected a multimillion dollar compromise: In exchange for back payments to thousands of employees for rest periods and other work hours, farmers would receive protection from lawsuits – and potentially far stiffer penalties – for past failure to pay.

The agreement went little noticed in the flurry of late-session bills. But it marked an unusual achievement for an industry beset by labor discord. Initial talks on the issue failed last year amid high stakes. The bill’s author, Assemblyman Das Williams, put estimated back payments to workers at about $200 million, while farm industry officials feared their liability could reach five times that amount or more.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s labor secretary, David Lanier, called the settlement a “remarkable deal.”

“Thousands of workers are going to get checks for back wages that they have no idea are coming,” he said.

Thousands of workers are going to get checks for back wages that they have no idea are coming.

David Lanier, Gov. Jerry Brown’s labor secretary

Yet the compromise came at a cost. To keep the United Farm Workers union from opposing the measure, the pact included exemptions effectively excluding Fresno County’s controversial Gerawan Farming operation and Fowler Packing Co., among other growers, from the bill’s protection from existing litigation.

Those carve-outs were necessary to maintain the support of labor, Williams said. But they left a rift within the agriculture community.

“The fact is, the people that were involved in this have various levels of exposure and concern as they’re looking at it,” said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association. “But why shouldn’t we have a negotiation system that says, ‘Look, if this solution is a fair and good one, why shouldn’t it apply to everyone?’ ”

Look, if this solution is a fair and good one, why shouldn’t it apply to everyone?

Barry Bedwell, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association

Gerawan has been the subject of UFW animosity for a bruising case over employee representation. Mario Martinez, a lawyer for the union, is among attorneys listed on class-action lawsuits against both Gerawan and Fowler.

Neither the UFW nor Martinez responded to requests for comment.

Williams said of exemptions in the bill that “there has to be a cutoff at some point, and no matter what the cutoff point is, somebody’s going to be left out.”

But Williams, a Santa Barbara Democrat, acknowledged concern among negotiators about Gerawan and Fowler.

“From my perspective, if we’re going to create a grand compromise that helps most growers and helps most workers, you don’t want to let it get blown up because there’s somebody who’s a potential bad actor,” he said.

The agreement contained in Assembly Bill 1513 goes further than any one grower – or even one industry. If Brown signs the measure, as expected, it will clarify pay for piece-rate workers throughout the state. Those laborers include many fruit pickers, truck drivers, cable installers and other workers paid for every portion of work they do, such as every box of fruit picked, mile driven or cable system installed.

When California courts held in 2013 that the state’s minimum wage law required paying piece-rate workers a separate hourly wage for rest periods and other non-productive time, employers who had not compensated their employees that way began agonizing over potential liability.

Labor unions worried about the expense and time required to recover back pay, and both sides raised concerns about remaining ambiguity in the law. Caitlin Vega, a lobbyist for the California Labor Federation, said a bill would give workers a “stronger guarantee” than interpreting various court rulings.

Employers began lobbying Brown, and as long as a year ago it became apparent the administration “clearly wanted to get this done,” said Tom O’Brien, senior vice president and general counsel of the berry distributor Driscoll’s.

Lanier said the administration initially believed legislation would provide “the best fix, but that it would be very difficult to achieve.” Brown officials helped organize talks between farming companies and labor unions.

“Those are big, important changes in state policy for workers and employers, and they were the subject of a lot of what I thought were good-faith negotiations and compromise and understanding,” Lanier said.

Williams described the negotiations as “intense,” lasting into the last week of the legislative session. To appease consumer attorneys, the bill included language clarifying that judges could still award attorney fees in existing cases.

The legislation also contained a custom-tailored benefit for one telecommunications company, AT&T. The bill grants the company extra time to program payroll systems to comply with the law. The company, a major donor to Brown’s political causes, recently acquired DirecTV, a company facing litigation over piece-rate pay.

“We had to, let’s say, put out some brush fires with both the consumer attorneys raising some issues, AT&T raising some issues,” Williams said. “Those kind of things can kind of blow things up.”

We looked at it kind of as the greater good and the best deal that we could get.

Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau

By the time the final deal emerged, vocal opposition was minimal, but not nonexistent. Former Assemblyman Rusty Areias, representing Gerawan and Fowler Packing, told lawmakers at a committee hearing that his companies had been thrown “under the bus” for the sake of a broader deal. He defended their treatment of their employees and warned the legislation would not stand up to a legal challenge.

But he said, “I know what the result is going to be here.”

Following the legislation’s passage, Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, sympathized with Gerawan and Fowler Packing, but he took a wider view.

The legislation “hit the best part of the issue,” Groot said. “And while it wasn’t perfect, and it didn’t cover 100 percent everyone who was affected by it, locally here, it did help.

“We looked at it kind of as the greater good and the best deal that we could get,” he said. “You have to take sometimes what you can get.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders

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