Farm employees, farmers oppose overtime bill


Issue Date: August 17, 2016
By Christine Souza

Pending California legislation that would expand overtime requirements for agricultural employees could ultimately reduce work hours and compensation for those employees, according to organizations that oppose the bill.

"Our concern is for the livelihood of people who work on farms and ranches," said Bryan Little, California Farm Bureau Federation director of employment policy. "Right now, they have the regular expectation of being able to work as many as 10 hours a day, and they've built their budgets, mortgages, car payments and everything else around that expectation."

California is one of the few states that requires premium overtime pay for agricultural employees. Current rules require premium pay after 10 hours of work in a day and for all hours worked on a seventh consecutive day worked in a workweek.

Assembly Bill 1066 by Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, would cut straight-time eligibility for farm and ranch employees, requiring premium pay after eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week. The changes would be phased in during a four-year period beginning Jan. 1. The bill is now before the state Senate.

A report by Highlands Economics, entitled "Economic Analysis of California Proposed Agricultural Overtime Wages," estimates the changes included in the bill would result in a reduction of $1.5 billion in aggregate farmworker income or 16 percent.

Winegrape grower Bruce Fry of Lodi said many of his employees have been vocal on this issue. Fry said groups of his employees met this summer with state legislators, to "have frank discussions on how this bill would affect their families, their livelihoods and financial position."

Fry said if the bill becomes law, his employees face potential pay reductions.

"One employee said it would be (the equivalent of ) one paycheck gone out of the month. How are they supposed to save money for their kids for college or to buy a new car or put something into retirement?" Fry said. "My employees say to me, 'What are we supposed to do?' They are so mad and frustrated."

The proposed change to overtime requirements, Fry said, would force farm and ranch employers to reduce the number of hours employees work.

"This hurts my employees. It will be eight hours a day until harvest season, and during harvest season, you have a short period of time where you will be doing some overtime, but the rest of the year, which is nine months, they will only receive eight hours a day, 40 hours a week," Fry said.

First-generation farmer Manuel Castro, who grows vegetables, flowers and other crops in Brawley, said he, too, is concerned for his employees.

"The biggest thing is my full-time guys who have been with me forever. They are going to take a cut in their income and it's going to set them back," Castro said. "The people that are actually here to work on the farm—honest, hardworking people—they are the ones that will pay the price."

Castro said he is unable to pass on any added production costs by charging his customers more. "We are price takers; we don't make the price," he said.

Situated only 30 minutes from the U.S.-Mexico border, Castro said, he competes against other companies growing produce in Mexico, where farmers don't face the additional regulations and requirements that California growers do.

"We compete against growers who are south of the border in the same season. Just crossing the border is a 15 to 20 percent discount in growing the same crops, and they have access to our markets," Castro said. "When our breakeven is $8.50 to $9 a carton, their breakeven down there is $2 less, delivered to the states."

Pete Aiello, general manager of Gilroy-based vegetable grower-shipper Uesugi Farms, said AB 1066 "will definitely cause us and our colleagues in the industry to reduce hours as much as we can."

"There will definitely be casualties: the company by virtue of less productivity and/or more expensive wages for the same level of productivity, and the employees by virtue of smaller paychecks. This is what I call a 'lose-lose' situation," Aiello said.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.