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Overtime bill bad for farmworkers and for farmers

Field workers pick arugula at a farm in Guinda in May 2015. The Legislature is debating a bill to bring farm workers under the same overtime requirements as other employees.
Field workers pick arugula at a farm in Guinda in May 2015. The Legislature is debating a bill to bring farm workers under the same overtime requirements as other employees. Sacramento Bee file

Assembly Bill 1066, recently gutted and amended to reintroduce a defeated measure, would give farmworkers the same overtime pay as other employees, kicking in at more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week.

California’s agricultural workers now get overtime pay for work of more than 10 hours a day and 60 hours per week. While you might think that this is somehow unfair or discriminatory, I encourage you to consider these facts.

Agricultural workers can earn up to 50 percent more in a week than non-agricultural employees because they can work as much as 60 hours a week. Overtime pay or even a full 40-hour week are rare in comparable labor sectors, so many workers are forced to work two or more jobs to make ends meet. While the United Farm Workers would have you believe that agricultural workers are somehow being forced to work such hours, the truth is that many of them choose agricultural work for that very reason.

While agricultural gross receipts have set records in California the last several years, a farmer’s ability to absorb additional labor and other costs is more closely related to net income, a more accurate measure of profitability that is often less than 5 percent of gross receipts. Overtime is expensive, and to assume that agriculture can afford it any more than any other industry is wildly optimistic and misguided.

There has been considerable lobbying by the UFW to approve AB 1066, authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat, in the name of equity and fairness. But the union represents just 2 percent of the workforce and has failed to produce a survey of mainstream agricultural workers that shows any support for this bill.

Restricting agricultural workers to a 40-hour week will not guarantee them overtime, but it will mandate a one-third cut in straight pay. A full-time farmworker earning just the minimum wage can make roughly $30,000 annually, excluding benefits such as housing, but would only earn $20,000 after enactment of this legislation.

Yes, agricultural labor is often back-breaking work with long hours. But farmworkers are not slaves. They can freely choose what to do for a living, and hundreds of thousands have chosen to work in agriculture, precisely because of the potential for higher income available through the 10-hour day.

Jeff Merwin is president of the Yolo County Farm Bureau. He can be contacted at windycorners@calbroadband.net.

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