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.

Farm labor, agriculture update in rural California

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Beginning July 1, 2015, all California employers must give their employees three paid sick days a year or allow them to accumulate paid sick leave at the rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked. Many employers plan to grant employees three days of sick leave at the beginning of each year.

 

Cal/OSHA tightened its heat-safety regulations effective May 1, 2015 to require "fresh, pure, and suitably cool" water to be located as close as practicable to workers. Employers must provide shade for all workers when the temperature tops 80 degrees, down from 85, and must monitor workers for signs of heat stress when temperatures exceed 95 degrees.

 

All outdoor workers must be trained in a language they understand about the dangers of heat illness.

Joint Employers 

 

AB 1897, effective January 1, 2015, makes employers with 25 or more workers, including at least six provided by contractors, jointly liable with their contractors to ensure that workers receive the wages due them and are covered by workers compensation insurance.

 

"Client employers" are jointly liable with FLCs (Farm labor contractors) for compliance with state wage and workers compensation laws. Workers who do not receive wages or workers compensation protections can sue their contractor employer and the client employer individually or on a class-action basis.

 

Farmers and other "client employers" can require contractors to verify their compliance with wage and workers compensation laws, and can require contractors to indemnify them for any violations. Delano-based Paramount Citrus Cooperative, the largest US citrus grower, in March 2015 tried to have a class action suit dismissed by arguing that it was not a joint-employer with Camacho FLC, the contractor providing workers to Paramount.

 

The suit alleged that piece rate harvest workers were not paid for time spent waiting for work to begin or traveling between orchards. Class action suits were filed against Leprino Foods in Lemoore and Wawona Frozen Foods in Clovis in January 2015 that alleged these employers did not pay workers for the time they spent doffing and dunning protective work equipment. The suits seek back wages for affected workers and a prohibition of unpaid doffing and dunning in the future.

 

Machines

 

The Tulare World Ag Expo, billed as the world's largest agricultural equipment showcase, highlighted a number of labor-saving machines. Ramsay Highlander showed the SPLAT 2.0, a laser-guided lettuce-thinning machine that replaces hand thinners. Some farmers say that their crops cannot easily be harvested by machine.

 

Harold McClarty of HMC Farms, who hires a peak 1,000 peach pickers, said that hand pickers are required to pick his 50 varieties of peaches, and that individual trees are often picked five times or more. Some peaches are picked by machine in a process that involves shaking all ripe peaches off the tree and sorting them in a packing shed. Hand picking ensures that a higher percentage of an orchard's peaches are sold to consumers.

 

Pesticides

 

California in January 2015 stiffened regulations on the use of chloropicrin, a pesticide injected into the ground before planting crops such as strawberries and tomatoes. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation said that the state needed a higher-than-EPA standard involving distance from human activities to fields being injected to protect farm workers and residents in densely populated areas where strawberries and other crops are grown.

 

Five farm workers from Puebla were killed in January 2015 when two trucks driven by unlicensed drivers collided in thick fog east of Stockton.

 

DOL investigated to determine whether the farm workers were carpooling or being transported by their employer.

 

Labor Laws 

 

FLC Manuel Quezada of Orland in February 2015 agreed to pay $163,000 in back wages to workers brought to the Roederer Estate in Mendocino county after federal investigators determined that Quezada did not pay his crews at least the minimum wage. Roederer agreed to improve its oversight of the FLCs who bring workers to its vineyards.

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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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