The San Joaquin Valley is the agricultural powerhouse of the United States and California. California accounts for an eighth of U.S. farm sales, largely because it produces high value fruit and nut, vegetable and melon, and horticultural specialty (FVH) crops such as nursery products and flowers. Over three-fourths of the state's $37 billion in farm sales in 2010 were crop commodities, and almost 90 percent of the $28 billion in California crop sales represented labor-intensive FVH commodities.

About half of California's farm sales and farm employment are produced in the eight-county San Joaquin Valley with four million residents that stretches from Stockton in the north to Bakersfield in the south. The leading U.S. farm county is Fresno, which had farm sales of almost $6 billion in 2010.

California farm labor update: processing and wages

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Processing

Farm commodities are often packed and processed by nonfarm workers in nearby plants. For example, Taylor Farms is a major producer of bagged salads, with sales exceeding $1.8 billion a year. Taylor's Salinas bagged salad plant has 2,500 employees who are represented by the Teamsters union, but its 900-employee Tracy salad plant is non-union.

The ballots in a March 2014 election at the Tracy plant were impounded by the National Labor Relations Board because the Teamsters alleged Taylor unlawfully interfered. The Teamsters argue that, because the 600 workers brought to the Tracy plant by temp agencies SlingShot and Abel Mendoza earn $0.50 an hour less than Taylor's Salinas workers, Tracy workers need a contract. The Teamsters say that Taylor intimidated its employees, some of whom are unauthorized, by threatening to introduce E-Verify to check the legal status of employees, and that the E-Verify threat makes workers reluctant to support the Teamsters.

 

Taylor's Salinas plant uses E-Verify, but Taylor says it has not yet introduced E-Verify at the Tracy plant that it bought in 2005. AB 1897, which went into effect January 1, 2015, makes employers such as Taylor liable for labor law violations committed by its contractors such as SlingShot and Abel Mendoza.

Apio Inc, a subsidiary of Landec Company (www.Landec.com), is a fresh-cut vegetable company in Guadalupe that the United Food and Commercial Workers tried to organize. The UFCW, which appeared to lose the December 5, 2014 election at Apio, complained that consultants hired by Apio told workers that the company had to give their names and addresses to the "federal government" or NLRB, which in turn gives employee information to the UFCW.

Some 750 votes were cast at Apio. According to the UFCW, many of the workers thought that the company was giving their personal data to immigration authorities. Landec uses proprietary food-packaging technologies in its Eat Smart and GreenLine vegetable brands.

Wages

California farmers are grappling with a ruling by the state's Labor Commissioner that piece-rate workers must receive their average hourly earnings while taking mandatory rest breaks and when moving between fields. Many employers assumed that, since piece-rate earnings are generally higher than the minimum wage including rest breaks, they did not have to pay for rest-break time.

If the Commissioner's ruling is upheld, the amount owed to piece-rate workers over the past four years could exceed $1 billion.

California requires employers to give their employees pay stubs with nine items specified, including gross and net wages earned, total hours worked, deductions, and all applicable hourly rates. Employers must also provide employees with a written notice detailing wages and deductions and contact information for the employer and the employer's workers' compensation insurance carrier.

Beginning July 1, 2015, most California employers must offer paid sick leave of at least one hour for every 30 hours worked, beginning after 90 days of employment. The Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act of 2014 allows employers to cap the number of sick leaves a three a year to care for the worker or a close family member. The state estimates that 6.5 million workers or about 40 percent will receive paid sick leave benefits for the first time as a result of the law.

Agriland Farming Company of Chowchilla, the state's third largest nut grower, signed an agreement with US DOL in October 2014 to monitor the FLCs who bring workers to its farms to ensure they comply with federal labor laws.

The EEOC, which says a quarter of the complaints it receives deal with harassment in the workplace, deals with issues related to race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, national origin, age, disability or genetic information. Media reports suggest sexual harassment is widespread in agriculture, where male supervisors allegedly harass female employees.

The EEOC noted that Global Horizons was convicted in March 2014 of harassment of Thai H-2A workers in Hawaii based on their race and/or national origin; the EEOC says that Global harassed the Thais to secure their compliance and obedience. The EEOC noted that high recruitment fees meant the Thais arrived in the US in debt, were often paid less than other workers, and were given less desirable jobs.

In January 2015, the EEOC won a $8.7 million judgment against California-based labor contractor Global Horizons and Maui Pineapple Company in Hawaii because of the discrimination against the Thais. Each of the 82 Thai guest workers will receive about $150,000. Global says that it has no assets. As a joint employer, Maui is liable for $8.1 million of the judgment.

California has 24 farm worker centers with 1,900 apartments that operate seasonally, offering housing to farm worker families who move from a residence at least 50 miles away into the centers. Some local residents move into the centers and rent out their housing to workers who migrate into the area. Most centers provide air-conditioned housing and health and education services.

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat on October 11, 2014 profiled a woman supervising a crew of 10 for Redwood Empire Vineyard Management, which had 10 female supervisors and 60 women harvesting grapes in 2014. Many of the women currently doing farm work find jobs through husbands and relatives already at work. With fewer new entrants from Mexico, employers ask their current workers to refer friends and relatives who would be good workers.

Foster Farms, which has 12,000 employees at chicken farms and processing plants in seven states, had sales of $2.3 billion in 2013. Foster has 3,500 workers at a chicken processing plant in Livingston and 1,300 in Turlock.

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Philip Martin is Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California- Davis, chair of the University of California's Comparative Immigration and Integration Program, and editor of the monthly Migration News and the quarterly Rural Migration News.

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