Overtime bill fails to advance in Legislature


Issue Date: June 8, 2016
By Dave Kranz

The defeat of state legislation to expand overtime requirements for agricultural workers demonstrates the effectiveness of unified advocacy by farmers and ranchers, an agricultural leader said.

Following the vote by the state Assembly, California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said the result "shows what farmers and ranchers can do when we work together."

By a 38-35 vote, the Assembly declined to advance Assembly Bill 2757, which would have imposed higher operating costs on farmers and ranchers and caused reduced work hours and compensation for farm employees. It needed 41 "yes" votes to move from the Assembly to the Senate.

AB 2757, by Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, would have required farmers to pay their employees premium pay after eight hours of work in a day or 40 hours in a week.

Current California regulations require premium pay for agricultural employees after 10 hours of work in a day. Agricultural employees also qualify for premium pay for all hours worked on a seventh consecutive day, as do workers in other sectors.

In advocating against the bill, farmers and their representatives said the measure would have hurt both agricultural employees and their employers.

Opponents said the higher cost of providing overtime pay—particularly when coupled with scheduled increases in the state minimum wage—would force farmers to reduce employee work hours to control labor costs. That, in turn, would lead to cuts in compensation for farm employees.

An additional provision of the measure, to require farm employees to take one day off a week or four days off in a month, could have forced seasonal agricultural workers to miss as many as four days of pay in a month of peak harvest season, opponents said.

Backers of the bill framed it as a matter of equity with workers in other jobs, but opponents noted the wide variety of California employees who also have different overtime-pay requirements—ranging from healthcare workers to ski-resort employees to personal attendants.

Wenger, who spent much of the day of the vote at the state Capitol along with advocates for Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations, said the hour-long debate on the bill showed its proponents had an inaccurate view of farmers and agriculture.

"California agricultural employees have been eligible for overtime pay since 1976," he said, "and California is one of only five states in the nation to offer premium pay for farm work. But people arguing for the bill made it sound as though those rules didn't exist. At times when I listened to the debate, I thought we were in a time warp going back 60 years ago and to another state."

Wenger said current premium-pay rules for agriculture allow farmers and their employees the flexibility to respond to unpredictable weather and the seasonality of farm production.

"It would really hit farm employees hard to slow their work during peak seasons, and this bill would have forced that," he said.

In addition, Wenger said, the bill would have had greater negative impact on employers who pay higher hourly wages, forcing them to reduce hours for their employees—and therefore reducing the employees' overall earnings.

"Overall, we estimated passage of the bill would have caused at least a one-third cut in income for many farmworkers during peak harvest season," he said.

Speaking against the bill during the floor debate, Assembly Member Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, said the measure would harm his farm and employees.

"For as long as there have been wage regulations, the law has treated farms differently, because they are different," Dahle said. "You can't spread the work out to fit a convenient schedule and fit it in an eight-hour day."

Assembly Member James Gallagher, R-Nicolaus, said AB 2757 would have been "bad for family farms and for the workers who are a part of that family." Gallagher, who grew up on a rice farm, said farmers must constantly battle time and the elements.

"If it hails, if there's weather at the wrong time, you could lose the entire crop," he said.

Expanded overtime rules would encourage farms to go to double shifts when possible, Gallagher said, in order to reduce overtime costs, "which means the workers will get less hours and less money, and that'll be worse for them."

Following the vote, Wenger noted the efforts of individual farmers and ranchers, who sent thousands of messages to legislators urging them to stop the bill, and of representatives of farm organizations who worked together to describe the bill's potential impact to legislators and their staffs.

"A united agriculture is much more effective in influencing public policy," Wenger said. "Rather than allowing ourselves to be divided by regional or parochial interests, we must use the same strategies we used in advocating on the overtime bill to affect other issues. This was a great example of what we can do when we come together for a common goal."

(Dave Kranz is editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at dkranz@cfbf.com.)

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