A bill set to head to the Assembly for final approval this week could have a big impact on Imperial County’s largest industry.
Assembly Bill 1313 would add new overtime regulations for agricultural workers, including those who have before now been able to work 60-hour weeks and Mondays through Saturdays. Under the bill, if a person works past 40 hours a week, they would receive time-and-a-half.
Local farmers are now saying the bill will impact not only farms, but also cut hours for farmworkers.
Federal rules allow agriculture workers to work 60-hour workweeks before going into overtime. Those rules have “been in place forever” and allow for a more flexible schedule for agriculture workers, Mark McBroom, president of the Imperial County Farm Bureau, said. Now the government in Sacramento has decided that California is to be the exception, he said.
The bill, should it become law, would put Imperial Valley’s way of doing business in disarray, he said.
“It may mean leaving food in the field and fields unfarmed because of the inability to farm them in an adequate way,” he said.
While there will be farmers affected, the workers are probably going to be hurt more, he said. They can now make, for example, $9 to $11 an hour for 60 hours of work, but under the new bill the total number of hours will probably go down. There would be more people working to fill that need, but for fewer hours each.
What will be most impacted locally is the way people irrigate their fields, McBroom said. Irrigation runs 24 hours, and while workers have their hour break for lunch and 10-minute breaks every few hours, most of the time they’re idle.
They make adjustments when needed and walk the roads. It’s not a continuous type of work.
Beyond the direct impact on the agriculture industry, everyone is set to be affected in some way.
“Eventually the consumer is the one that is paying the prices for all of these increases of doing business, because the costs have to be passed on to the consumer,” he said. “And when these consumers reach the point in which they don’t want to pay, it’s going to dry up business. … If we have to rely on other countries for food like we do for oil, this country is going to be in a world of hurt.”
Agricultural employees are exempt from existing state law requiring overtime wages and hour requirements. The bill, authored by Assemblyman Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa, would remove the exemption for those employees included as those protected by criminal penalties if the rules aren’t followed.
“Despite the fact that they perform some of the most physically-demanding jobs — with pay and working conditions at levels that most Americans would not tolerate — California’s farmworkers continue to be excluded from overtime laws enjoyed by most workers,” according to David Miller, spokesman for the assemblyman. “Farmworkers, whose labors help deliver food to our tables, are not second-class citizens.
“They are as deserving of fair treatment, and dignity on the job, as anyone else who works in California,” he added. “AB 1313 will ensure that farmworkers are afforded what other workers are eligible to receive under overtime laws — including overtime pay after eight hours, after 40 hours worked in a week, and after working more than eight hours on the seventh day.”
However, local farmers contend that at the end of the day workers will be receiving less money.
Farmer Jack Vessey said that if the bill is signed into law, he’s going to have to rework his management in order to keep overtime to a minimum. That means a majority of agricultural employees would make less money because their hours would be cut.
Farms, though, work on different schedules, especially during peak times, he said.
“We’re not factories making widgets,” he said. “We’re producing fruits and vegetables, and produce are going to come when they want to come. … I can’t set when a head of lettuce is ready and a whole field is ready at a time. … There are things that happen in agriculture that make if different than any other industry.”
Other industries aren’t as impacted by weather or some natural occurrences, he said. If it rains, work may be stalled for a week and workers will then have to move quickly after the ground dries. Now, though, Vessey said food may be left in the field in that case because workers wouldn’t be able to work the six-day workweeks.
“The thing that disgusts me is that people don’t think it through,” he said. “In the end it’s going to hurt more than it’s going to help the employee.”
There isn’t a shortage of issues facing agriculture in California, farmer Larry Cox said. There are increased regulations for diesel vehicles, some trucks won’t come to California because of engine requirements, health and safety regulations are stricter and there are higher minimum wages. Processing facilities are already leaving the area, likely in part due to the increased regulations.
Customers aren’t willing to pay a premium for California products, he said. It’s a competitive market, and if areas like Arizona or Mexico can make a product of about the same quality but cheaper, businesses will choose outside California.
“I love farming,” he said. “I love doing what I’m doing. I love being outdoors. But it’s a lot bigger challenge now than it was 20 years ago. … We have great employees. I want to be able to pay them more, but it’s got to be out of economic success, not a government mandate.”
The bill has been supported by some farmworkers’ union, like the United Farm Workers.
“Farmworkers, whose labors help deliver food to our tables, are not second-class citizens. They are as deserving of fair treatment, and dignity on the job, as anyone else who works in California,” says the UFW Web site section dedicated to the bill. “By becoming law, AB 1313 would help correct a grievous wrong that can no longer be tolerated in a state that, time and time again, has set the standard for improving conditions on the job for working people.”
Staff Writer Elizabeth Varin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 760-337-3441.
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