California lawmakers debate overtime for farmworkers
The California Assembly on Monday sent Gov. Jerry Brown a hard-fought and historic expansion of overtime rules for farmworkers, but it remains uncertain whether the Democratic governor will sign off on the measure.
A nearly identical bill fell three votes short of passage on the Assembly floor in May, with 15 Democrats voting against the measure or declining to vote. But on Monday, an amended version of the measure, now contained in Assembly Bill 1066, passed on a 44-32 vote.
Agricultural workers already receive some overtime pay under California law thanks to a 2002 state directive that entitles them to extra wages if they work more than 10 hours in a day or more than 60 hours in a week. AB 1066 would expand that to bring it more in line with other industries, offering time-and-a-half pay for working more than eight hours in a day or 40 in a week and double pay for working more than 12 hours a day. The pay boosts would kick in incrementally over four years, and the governor could suspend them for a year if the economy falters.
Business groups quickly condemned the vote. “We are deeply concerned with the passage of AB 1066 today and the devastating impacts this bill will have on our small, independent farmers and the workers they employ,” said Tom Scott, state executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “This mandate does not consider the thousands of agricultural workers who will lose their jobs and the billions of dollars in lost crop production resulting from these new overtime regulations.”
Ahead of Monday’s vote, Assembly members heard from both farmworkers who forfeited a day’s pay to visit offices and press for the bill and from farm industry representatives, including minority farm owners, who warned lawmakers the measure would devastate small-scale growers and diminish work for laborers.
Supporters invoked fairness, justice and the need to rectify a history rife with labor exploitation.
“Right now, under current law, we’re telling our farmworkers, ‘You are different than other workers. You are less than other workers. You are less valued and less valuable,’” said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, whose parents organized Central Valley farmworkers in the movement championed by Cesar Chavez.
They argued the extra compensation for farmworkers would correct historical wrongs, noting that Congress cut out agricultural workers while guaranteeing other workers extra wages via the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. Farm fields have long allowed exploitation of powerless laborers, they argued, from slavery through the immigrant laborers for whom Chavez fought.
“We must ask ourselves to be on the right side of history today,” said Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, D-Kingsburg, a grandchild of immigrant farm laborers who recounted working as a doctor and treating “farmworkers I was struggling to keep alive because the hours are too long in the brutal sun.”
The United Farm Workers union, Chavez’s most visible political legacy in California, played a central role in the political struggle around AB 1066. The union repeatedly brought farmworkers to the Capitol and collaborated with lawmakers who launched a 24-hour hunger strike to support the measure. Its president, Arturo Rodriguez, who stood next to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon on Thursday when the speaker promised to push the bill across the finish line, watched on Monday from a balcony overhanging the Assembly chamber. Again and again, supportive lawmakers invoked Chavez.
Flipping the proponents’ argument, critics said the well-intentioned measure would hurt laborers by leading to cuts in their hours and economic hardship for the farms that employ them. Farmworkers are treated differently from other workers, they said, because the nature of their work is different.
“It’s going to devastate the working families of our farming community,” said Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Porterville, whose office dubbed the bill “The Farm Worker Poverty Act of 2016.” Mathis said that workers “do not want to see their hours cut, and that is what will happen here if this is to pass.”
Opponents, including agricultural industry representatives, said supporters of the bill fundamentally misunderstand how farm labor works. They argue that agricultural hours vary far more than in other industries, tied to seasonal cycles rather than state hour mandates. Setting a 60-hour-a-week benchmark for more wages makes far more sense given the long hours of harvest season, they said.
“The people in this room that are part of this body that touch agriculture, that have lived it, that have had their hands in the dirt ... they’ve all told you this is a bad bill,” said Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Plumas Lake. “Things are a little bit different in the farming business,” he added, “and if you don’t understand it you shouldn’t be voting on bills or putting things through you don’t fully understand.”
The bill voted on Monday differed slightly from the original version, having been amended to allow smaller farms more time to implement the change. In an olive branch to opponents, this version of the bill would give farms with 25 or fewer employees until 2022 start to complying, while larger farms would need to start paying more in 2019.
All 38 Democrats who voted for the bill previously were joined by one Republican, Eric Linder of Corona, and five Democrats who had either opposed the measure in June or not cast a vote. Seven out of eight Sacramento-area members of the Assembly opposed the bill with only Kevin McCarty, a Democrat, supporting it.
Brown has not said how he will act on the measure, and his record on labor and farmworker issues is mixed. He signed the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act when he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983, and has frequently mentioned his personal relationship with Cesar Chavez.
But Brown has often sided with industry interests since returning to office, at times infuriating farmworker advocates. In 2011, the UFW protested Brown when he vetoed a bill that would have made it easier to unionize farmworkers, though Brown later signed a compromise bill.
He disappointed the UFW again when he vetoed legislation that would have made it harder for farmers to stall new farmworker contracts.
Brown’s predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, vetoed similar overtime legislation in 2010.
David Siders of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.
How Sacramento-area members of the Assembly voted on Assembly Bill 1066:
Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals
Bill Dodd, D-Napa
Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova
Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove
James Gallagher, R-Plumas Lake
Beth Gaines, R-El Dorado Hills
Jim Frazier, D-Oakley
Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento