CIRS Blog about Rural California

California Institute for Rural Studies to study impact of California wage increase on farmworkers

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On April 4th California Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 3 into law, which will incrementally increase the hourly state minimum wage to $15 by 2022.


This decision to raise wages for working Californians rightfully included farmworkers, the 500,000 men, women and youth (i) who bring California’s harvest to the tables of millions.


This decision bucks a historical trend of excluding farmworkers from rules and legislation aimed at improving the well being of low-wage workers. This is an important time in California agricultural history and there is much to be learned from the changes the bill will bring in the years ahead.


CIRS is ready to study these changes. This May we will embark upon a targeted research initiative that builds upon our archive of farm labor research, to inform and guide responses to SB 3 implementation within agricultural communities. 


The inclusion of farm wages under SB 3 signals a turn towards more inclusive economic policymaking in California. This is definitely a victory and it helps build further momentum in the Fight for 15 that continues throughout our nation. Yet, in the wake of this victory there should remain a healthy skepticism.


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Photo of a man hand weeding in Arvin, California. (Courtesy of  David Bacon)



There is still a long-standing tradition of agricultural exceptionalism (ii) in US farm labor policy that could continue to impact the pace of SB 3 implementation. 


The current rule already grants a one-year extension to small business and employers to reach the $15 goal by 2023. This would include small-scale farmers with 25 or fewer employees.]While such concessions may seem reasonable given the increased labor cost this will bring over just a few years, it reminds us that increasing wages for farmworkers means a corresponding response by employers to do just that. How agricultural employers will choose to respond to increasing wage rates remains to be seen. A common response to higher wages in agriculture has been a retreat from domestic farm labor, often in the form of guest worker programs, and the threat of increased mechanization.


There are more equitable alternatives. Now, more than ever, agricultural employers will benefit from reliable data and research-based guidance that points the way toward a just and stable labor force, and helps avoid past practices that hurt workers and undercut the practice of sustainable agriculture (iii).


Earlier this year CIRS convened a group of farmworker researchers, advocates and policy makers to discuss the potential promise and challenge of raising farmworker wages. That meeting helped us clarify our purpose for continued research on farmworker wages and agriculture. We believe our role is to now generate new data on economics and farm labor that can help farmers, farmworkers and rural leaders reap the full benefits of SB 3.


We will pursue this role by first undertaking an economic study of how wage increases in agricultural counties of California will impact farmworkers over time, and identify ways all farms can operate profitably.


We invite you to help us in making decisions about the scope of our future research and to connect us with individuals interested in contributing toward a better understanding of this topic. Together we can help to avoid any new forms of agricultural exceptionalism that may emerge as SB 3 is implemented, and utilize research to further guide California toward a more sustainable and healthy agriculture. 



i. Farmworker estimates vary for California, this is an estimate based on recent research showing changes in farmworker migration patterns. See: Maoyong Fan, Susan Gabbard, Anita Alves Pena, and Jeffrey M. Perloff. (2014). “Why Do FewerAgricultural Workers Migrate Now?. IRLE Working Paper No. 117-14.


ii. Sarah O. Rodman, Colleen L. Barry, Megan L. Clayton, Shannon Frattaroli, Roni A. Neff, and Lainie Rutkow 2016. Agricultural Exceptionalism at the State Level: Characterization of Wage and Hour Laws for U.S. Farmworkers. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development., pp. 89–110


iii. Listen to our Cal Ag Roots podcast on the history of the tomato harvester in California to explore how labor saving mechanization can lead to unsustainable practices in agriculture


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