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California Farm Workers Overtime Bill Might Not Add Up To Bigger Paychecks

Julia Mitric/Capital Public Radio
Farm workers sort green pepers from a conveyor belt at a farm west of Sacramento, California.

California farm workers could soon be eligible for overtime the way most laborers are: if they work more than eight hours in a day or more than 40 hours in a week. That’s a change recently passed by the California Legislature and awaiting action from Governor Jerry Brown.

Labor groups that backed the bill say it's high time for farm labor to be regulated like most private sector work. But many California growers say the move might not add up to bigger paychecks for farm laborers.

Twenty-five miles west of Sacramento, farm worker Maria Diaz sorts green bell peppers along an outdoor conveyor belt.

She and a team of laborers discard leaves and stems as quickly as they can before peppers are swept away by a mini-roller coaster onto a nearby tractor trailer.

She says these peppers aren’t for eating. They’re headed to the cannery where they'll be processed for seed.

Diaz is a single parent of three. She’s one of roughly 800,000 farmworkers in California. Diaz is not familiar with the details of the farmworker overtime bill that's headed for the Governor's desk. Still, Diaz says the overtime will be very good for her. She says earning overtime after an eight hour work shift will help her cover childcare costs.

The reason this new law is important is that two-thirds of U.S. fruits and nuts and one-third of vegetables come from California. Higher labor costs could mean higher food bills no matter where you live in the country.

The new rules would also mean overtime pay for farm laborers who work more than 40 hours in a week.

Jeff Merwin is a third-generation farmer and President of the Yolo County Farm Bureau. He grows alfalfa and seed crops in Clarksburg. If the overtime changes are signed into law, Merwin predicts his employees will end up losing money.

"They’re not being told the story. What they’re being fed is this utopian line about how it’ll be great, you’ll get all this overtime because they’ll pay it – they’ll pay it," says Merwin. "How?"

Merwin estimates that his employees work about 60 hours at straight time. He says he can’t afford to pay overtime, so he’ll just have to cut their hours back. Or find a way to do the same work in less time.

"And I’m not the Grinch here," says Merwin. "All I’m saying is, it’s economics 101. If the money’s not there you can’t pay it. And the money is not there."

Philip Martin is professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis. He points out one big problem with labor groups and the agricultural industry predicting how new overtime rules will play out for farmworkers and their employers.

"No one has the data on exactly who works how many hours," Davis says. "So in a sense, we’re making policy based on assumptions which may or may not be true."

Right now, Martin also says, California is a crazy patchwork when it comes to regulating farm labor. Farm workers are excluded from certain rights - in other cases they receive special protections.

Martin says the first step in coming up with a more comprehensive solution is updating the picture of farmworkers. From dustbowl-era The Grapes of Wrath to the 21st century.

"It’s a different story than many people have in mind from the days when most farm workers were single men who lived on the farm where they worked, lived in dorms, that still exists but it’s very rare," says Martin.

"Now we’re at a different stage where farmworkers are primarily Mexican-born men with families, with U.S. born children,"Martin explains. "They’re settling in California and they tend to work for one farm employer in the course of year."

If the bill is signed into law, new overtime rules for California's agricultural workers will be phased in gradually over four years beginning in 2019.

Copyright 2016 Capital Public Radio