California farmworkers will not be entitled to extra overtime pay, with lawmakers turning back a measure to lift laborers’ wages after an intense debate.
After deliberation that spanned over an hour, featuring emotional speeches from 16 different lawmakers and three Bible quotes – two in favor of overtime and one against – Assembly Bill 2757 failed on a 37-35 vote, four short of the needed 41-vote majority. Eight Democrats opposed the bill and seven withheld votes.
Arguing for the bill’s righteousness, Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, D-Kingsburg, quoted Scripture: “A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. A tree is identified by its fruit. Figs are never gathered from thornbushes, and grapes are not picked from bramble bushes.”
Later in the debate, Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, countered with a verse from Luke 14:5: “Then he turned to them and said, which of you does not work on the Sabbath? If your son or your cow falls into a pit, don’t you rush to get him out?”
Congress excluded farmworkers from wage protections extended to other industries in passing the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. California subsequently 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.
The bill would have expanded upon that to bring agricultural overtime rules in line with other industries, eventually guaranteeing laborers 1 1/2 times their normal wages for every hour they work over eight in a day or 40 a week. Working more than 12 hours a day would have meant double pay.
Farmworkers watched from the balcony and United Farm Workers of America President Arturo Rodriguez, whose union sponsored the measure, looked on from the floor. Lawmakers with agricultural backgrounds made emotional appeals on both sides: some who hailed from lines of farmworkers talked about uplifting those laborers, while others who worked on family farms warned about burying those businesses.
“If I could pick my dirt up and leave, I would,” said Assemblyman Brian Dahle, R-Bieber. “My dream is to leave a flourishing farm to my children. You stand in the way of allowing my children to continue their great-grandather’s aspirations.”
Advocates argued that farmworkers should be entitled to the same protections as workers in many other segments of the economy who draw extra pay for working long hours. Many cast the debate in terms of a broad historical pursuit of social justice, drawing parallels to slavery, sharecroppping and the farmworkers’ rights movement that gripped California decades ago.
“This is not a new idea,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, whose grandfather traveled from Mexico to work in California’s fields as part of the bracero program. “It’s been tried and failed ... but it’s absolutely the right thing to do.”
But those arguments did not win over lawmakers who argued the measure would devastate agricultural business models. Opponents said different rules apply to farmworkers because of the unique nature of an industry governed by weather and the seasons. Prominent agricultural industry groups like the California Farm Bureau Federation opposed the bill.
“People ask why do we treat ag differently – I can remember as a kid, during planting and harvest season, I hardly saw my father,” said Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City. “It’s hard work. It’s long hours.