On Sept. 12, a major milestone for farmworkers throughout California was reached when Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law AB 1066, a law that creates a state-mandated program to right an eight decades old wrong, according to Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers Association. AB 1066, which will be phased in over a four-year period, removes the exemption for agricultural employees of the labor code regarding hours, meal breaks, and other working conditions, including specified wage requirements, and would create a schedule that would phase in overtime requirements.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) authored the bill, which the UFW sponsored. It will amend a 1938 labor act signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt that exempted farm workers from minimum wages and overtime.
Rodriguez said the UFW has been working on the bill since Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was in office.
“Assemblywoman Gonzalez looked at it and we worked with her and talked to workers and tried to come up with something this time around that would be acceptable to enough legislators to get the support we needed in both houses,” Rodriguez said. “We thought it would do justice to the workers and change a wrong.”
He said as they were trying to design legislation that would hopefully pass, they also wanted to be sensitive to employers.
“That’s why we did not call for an immediate implementation and we scaled the overtime aspect of it while taking into account the small growers,” he said. “Something like this has never been done for agriculture workers in the history of the United States. We’re extremely happy for farm workers, their families and the communities they live in.”
The overtime portion of AB 1066 will begin in 2019. It will lower the current 10-hour day threshold for overtime by a half hour in each of four years until 2022, when it reaches the standard eight-hour day and a 40-hour workweek.
Senate leader Kevin de León, whom Rodriguez said was instrumental in pushing the bill through the Senate, called the original federal act “naked racism.”
“When President Roosevelt was going to sign the legislation (in 1938), the southern block of legislators went to him—at this time, the South was the main agriculture area of the country and the primary workers were African-Americans—and said they would only vote for it if he excluded farmworkers from the Fair Labor Standards Act, as it was called then,” Rodriguez said. “They did not want to give the African-American workers the same rights.”
According to language in the new bill, the intent of the Legislature is to enact the phase-in of the Overtime for Agricultural Workers Act of 2016 to provide any person employed in an agricultural occupation in California, as defined in Order No. 14-2001 of the Industrial Welfare Commission with an opportunity to earn overtime compensation under the same standards as millions of other Californians.
The California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF), along with a coalition of agriculture producers, led the opposition to the bill. Paul Wenger, president of the bureau, headquartered in Sacramento, with 53 county farm bureaus, thought it was interesting that UFW supported the bill because, according to him, the union represents only about 3 percent of farmworkers.
“Many people who work in agriculture do so because they do get the 10-hour day because of the seasonality of it,” he said. “UFW made the issue that we should have eight-hour work days and 40-hour work weeks. The interesting thing is, we went to the Agriculture Labor Relations Board and looked at a lot of the contracts UFW signed when they unionized different employers and they typically went with a 10-hour work day.”
Wenger said another rule in AB 1066 is that if an employer pays more than 30 percent of minimum wage and there is a contract with the union, they can go with a 10-hour work day.
“So, any employer can pay any amount above minimum wage and we can have an eight-hour day and 40-hour work week, but if you sign a contract with the union you can do a 10-hour day,” he said. “It’s atrocious and the hypocrisy is ridiculous.”
The Farm Bureau, Wegner said, tried to make Gov. Brown aware of the irony in the bill, and, according to Wenger, Brown was surprised because he thought most people in agriculture paid only minimum wage. Wenger said that Brown apparently did not see the irony and signed the bill, which Wegner said will not only hurt farm workers and growers, but will increase the cost of fruits and vegetables for consumers.
Rodriguez said he has worked for the UFW for 40 years and that has always been the claim from producers.
“Every time we try to do something to improve the economic conditions of farmworkers, we’ve heard the same arguments,” he said, “and we still have the cheapest fruits and vegetables in the entire world. The farmworkers are the ones who continually sacrifice in terms of low wages, bad working conditions, no benefits, no medical plan or pension.”
Wenger, though, said the proof will come when strawberries grown in Watsonville are more expensive than those grown in Mexico because of the bill.
Hollister City Councilwoman Mickie Luna is no stranger to the life of farmworkers.
“I do come from a farmworker family and my husband’s uncle was Cesar Chavez’ captain in the United Farm Workers Association,” she said. “I think (the bill is) great and long overdue. I know the sacrifices farm workers go through, working 10-hour days and getting a little bit more for over 10 hours. This is really going to make a change.”
Luna said she had been hoping the governor would sign the bill because of his close ties with farmworkers over the years.
“He knows what they go through,” she said. “The hours they work just to put food on the tables of so many people in the nation. I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s going to work out.”
The bill, Luna said, will not only give workers more take-home pay, but would give them more time to be with their families.
“Just how much money do these families make, even with both parents working in the fields?” she offered. “Look around San Benito County; there are field workers everywhere. If you’re going to San Jose at 6 o’clock in the morning on Highway 25, they’re already out there working.”
San Benito County Supervisor Robert Rivas commented by Instant Messenger: “I applaud Governor Brown and all state policymakers who worked to pass AB 1066. I believe the change to allow the payout of overtime from a 10-hour day to an eight-hour day was long overdue. Farm workers perform back-breaking work and their work helps to put vegetables and fruit on our tables.”