CIRS Blog about Rural California

Seasonality is a characteristic of agriculture. Some seasons are busy, others less so. Busy times mean more employees — and less busy times – well, seasonality in farming is why it has always been hard for farmworkers to find year-round steady work. Most people still think of farmworkers as migrants, moving from one part of the country to the next, following the harvest as crops mature. For migrant farmworkers from time immemorial, there have always been periods of time when work is scarce. This is unlike almost any other profession. Sure, teachers have traditionally had time off in the summer. Landscaping and construction are also kind-of seasonal. But I think not to the extent that is built into the very nature of farming. Harvest time is fraught with urgency — the crop must be in the barn and out of the rain, or at the processing plant and out of the field, in a short window of time, or it will be lost. All the effort of keeping the crop safe, growing it from a seed to a grain, or from a bud to a fruit, can be for naught, if the harvest fails for one reason or another. 

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By Hannah Guzik

The sun has just nosed above the horizon when Maria Espinosa (not her real name) ties a bandana over her face to protect herself from pesticides and dust, and reaches for a blackberry bush. Paid by the amount of berries she picks plus a $3-per-hour wage, Espinosa works feverishly for 10 hours, stopping only briefly for short breaks and lunch. For that day in early May, Espinosa would receive no overtime pay.

California’s 441,000 agricultural employees harvest one-third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts. The state’s 76,400 farms and ranches earned approximately $54 billion for their 2014 harvests, according to the most recent crop report. Yet the median personal income of farmworkers statewide is just $14,000 a year.

Unlike nearly all other employees in the U.S., farmworkers aren’t eligible for overtime pay unless they work more than 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week. Because of pressure from Southern lawmakers who wanted to maintain a low-wage black workforce, farm workers (along with domestic workers and other primarily African-American workforces) were exempted from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, leaving them without federal standards for overtime pay, basic union organizing rights and other worker protections.

“We work very hard and make little. … Why should we be treated differently?” Espinosa says.

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For the state’s first hundred-plus years, certain unspoken rules governed California politics. In a state where agriculture produced more wealth than any industry, the first rule was that growers held enormous power.

 

Tax dollars built giant water projects that turned the Central and Imperial Valleys into some of the nation’s most productive farmland. Land ownership was concentrated in huge corporate plantation-like farms. Growers used political power to assure a steady flow of workers from one country after another—Japan, China, the Philippines, Yemen, India, and of course Mexico—to provide the labor that made the land productive.

Agribusiness kept farm labor cheap, at wages far below those of people in the state’s growing urban centers. When workers sought to change their economic condition, grower power in rural areas was near absolute—strikes were broken and unions were kept out.

 

The second unwritten rule was therefore that progressive movements grew more easily in the cities, where unions and community organizations became political forces to be reckoned with. In the legislature, these rules generally meant that Democrats and pro-labor proposals came from urban districts, while resistance came from Republicans in rural constituencies.

 

That historic divide in California politics is changing, however.

 

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Consuelo Mendez was 23 when she arrived in the United States 45 years ago, looking for work. In Ventura County she found it, harvesting strawberries, tomatoes, cabbage, parsley and spinach. She got those jobs by going from field to field, asking other workers to tell her who was hiring. Picking is hard work, and getting enough work to live on required her to move all the time from one farm to another.

“When I emigrated from a small town in Michoacán I had never worked before,” she remembers. “I was young, raising my children. Then I went to work in the strawberry harvest. My husband was running an upholstery business, but that didn’t pay very well, so he worked alongside me in the fields to make extra money. I never thought I would be working like that, and that the work would be so hard. I did it for three years, but after that I couldn’t because I got so tired. I couldn’t drive and didn’t know how to speak English – to this day I struggle with it.”

Mendez wanted something more stable, and she found it. A woman told her Brokaw Nursery in Saticoy was hiring. She asked a foreman there again and again to hire her, and finally the owner took notice. “We told him we were looking for work because we had a family to support,” she remembers. “He told us to come back the next day and gave us a job. I got a job indoors and my husband went to work in their fields. I’ve been here and never been unemployed since.”

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California requires overtime pay for farmworkers, one of four states to do so. In 1976 the 10/60 standard (that requires overtime after 10 hours a day or 60 a week, different than the standard eight hours a day and 40 hours a week for non-farmworkers) was established in 1976.

Across the U.S., workers hired directly by the farm that employed them averaged 41 hours of work in July 2015; California farmworkers averaged 43.6 hours. Most harvest workers are employed less than eight hours a day, but some work six days a week during the harvest. Workers most likely to be affected by an 8/40 overtime pay requirement are irrigators and equipment operators, who often work 60 or more hours a week during busy periods.

Sonoma County farm labor contractors (FLCs) Four Seasons Vineyard Management and Ridge Vineyards were fined $42,000 by the Department of Labor (DOL) in February 2016 for poor housing for farmworkers. Four Seasons deducted rent from the wages of workers and turned rental payments over to Ridge.

Two California Court of Appeals decisions in 2013 required employers to pay piece rate workers for nonproductive time and to pay them for rest periods at their average piece-rate earnings. Before these 2013 rulings, employers could pay only piece-rate wages to workers as long as their piece-rate earnings exceeded the minimum wage.

Many workers planned to sue for back wages. AB 1513 gave employers a "safe harbor," allowing them to pay any back wages due piece-rate workers after July 1, 2012 without penalties. However, employers who faced suits for unpaid productive time and for using fictitious workers to reduce wages were excluded from the safe harbor.

Two farms are affected by these exclusions, Gerawan Farming and Fowler Packaging. Both face United Farm Workers-initiated suits, and both sued in January 2016 to have the AB 1513 exemption declared unconstitutional.

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