“It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables, and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves.” — Cezar Chavez
It has been referred to as a human rights bill 80 years in the making. Last Monday, California legislators passed Assembly Bill 1066, Agricultural workers: wages, hours, and working conditions, after intense debate over the law that would require farmers to pay farmworkers overtime after eight hours of work daily. The law will go into effect in 2019 and will be phased in over four years. The law would expand overtime pay for more than 825,000 farmworkers in the state, nearly 23,000 of them in Ventura County. A similar bill had failed to pass the Assembly in June, shy four votes to win the majority.
When it comes to putting a value on human dignity, it’s unfortunate that we have to negotiate such things via intense battles. The fact that farmworkers had been treated any differently than any other laborer or hourly wage worker is unfair. With California’s minimum wage to increase to $15 incrementally over the next five years, the time had come for workers, who do grueling labor in the fields, to join the rest of so many who stand to benefit from these pay increases. Further, California farmers received over $11.1 billion in federal subsidies from 1995 to 2014 to cover insurance, conservation efforts, disaster payments and commodity programs, which helps supplement incomes and helps influence the cost of commodities It should be noted, however, that of the 81,033 farms in California, only 7,444, or 9.2 percent, collected subsidy payments.
On the other end of this spectrum of news is the harsh reality of employers working with overtime laws, by hiring more employees, reduction of the 10 hour work days at the regular wage to eight hours, and expectations of increased work production within a shorter time span. In Ventura County, the farming community has been jolted by the loss of four agricultural businesses this summer terminating over 800 workers, which included Oxnard-based Mandalay Berry Farms at 565 jobs. In 2013, California Mushroom Farm Inc. lost 415 jobs with its closure. While the overtime law addresses rights of workers, it is unknown how this law will affect the agricultural industry.
With every swing of the pendulum, some good and bad is to be expected of all well-intended changes, with the adjustment period for this law in particular possibly leading to some uncomfortable results over time, as farmers adjust with more overhead costs and lower profits. Unfortunately, in these unpredictable economic times, such laws could force farms to close as operators compete with inexpensive goods from outside the country. In the end, though, we hope, as a community and a society, that the goodwill of this legislation will spread the message of equal pay and cultivate better working environments. Only time will tell.