Soapbox

Farmworkers deserve right to overtime pay like everyone else

Assembly Bill 1066 would give farmworkers the same right to overtime pay as teenagers who work in air-conditioned supermarket produce aisles and who receive overtime pay after eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week.
Assembly Bill 1066 would give farmworkers the same right to overtime pay as teenagers who work in air-conditioned supermarket produce aisles and who receive overtime pay after eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week. Associated Press file

Seventeen years ago, my days were consumed dealing with an army of doctors, all committed to saving my dad, Joe Serna Jr., from the ravages of renal carcinoma – kidney cancer.

My father survived an initial diagnosis years earlier with the removal of an orange-sized tumor along with one of his kidneys. The disease’s return quickly metastasized and spread throughout his 60-year-old body. You might think this was the worst possible realization for my family and me. It wasn’t.

The doctors explained my father’s terminal condition was likely the result of repeated childhood exposure to herbicides and pesticides while toiling as a farmworker in the San Joaquin Valley.

Numb from the news, all I thought about was my father, a respected government professor and Sacramento’s beloved mayor, writhing in pain because of his history as a California farmworker.

I was devastated then, and I remain so.

Reflecting back on that dark time in 1999 is one of the principal reasons I’ve been so actively engaged to see that Assembly Bill 1066 becomes law.

AB 1066 does something very simple and reasonable, especially in light of the harsh, unhealthy and sometimes lethal working conditions afflicting California’s roughly 400,000 farmworkers.

Authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, the legislation overrides provisions of a 78-year-old federal law born in the Jim Crow South that still systematically excludes farmworkers from overtime pay.

The California legislature's approval of a bill to phase in state overtime rules for farmworkers awaits Gov. Jerry Brown's signature. Agricultural workers already receive some overtime pay under California law thanks to a 2002 state directive that

If signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, AB 1066 would finally give farmworkers the same right to overtime pay as upper-middle-class teenagers who work in air-conditioned supermarket produce aisles and who receive overtime pay after eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week.

These are the same overtime rights other agriculture-related occupations enjoy, such as truck drivers who transport fruits, vegetables and nuts, and the food processors who prepare products for distribution and sale. The people who stoop all day in 100-degree-plus heat to plant, tend and harvest California’s bounty must work in excess of 10 hours per day or 60 hours in a week to receive overtime pay.

I joined the United Farm Workers and hundreds of agricultural laborers who forfeited two days of wages they could ill afford in order to meet with legislators. I witnessed debate on the Senate and Assembly floors, including mention of my father’s own plight to counter specious claims of lost worker hours and farm bankruptcy.

I have yet to hear one good reason why California farmworkers should continue to be denied fair access to overtime. I haven’t heard one because one doesn’t exist. Contrived arguments fall flat compared with the glaring injustice that is at issue and the need to ensure equal treatment under the law.

The year my father died from kidney cancer, probably in part from being indiscriminately crop-dusted in the fields near Acampo, he told a Sacramento Bee reporter, “I was supposed to live and die as a farmworker, not as a mayor and college professor.”

My father did likely die as a farmworker in one respect. It’s a reminder to us all that farmworkers are California’s hardest-working people, subjected to the most inhospitable conditions, who deserve access to overtime pay for the labor they perform that the rest of us avoid.

Brown should sign AB 1066 because it is the right thing to do. If you agree, please encourage his signature at govnews.gov.ca.gov/gov39mail.

¡Si Se Puede!

Phil Serna serves on the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors representing District 1 and is a member of the California Air Resources Board. Contact him at supervisorserna@saccounty.net.

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