Reporting from Sacramento – —
The state Assembly, in a historic vote Thursday, passed and sent to the governor a bill to give California farmworkers the same rights to overtime pay as millions of other hourly employees have.
People who work at one of the most difficult, dangerous and injury-prone jobs — picking vegetables, fruit and nuts — shouldn't be discriminated against when they spend more than eight hours a day in the field, argued Sen. Dean Florez, the bill's author as well as the son and grandson of Kern County farmworkers.
In a lengthy debate that covered human rights and economics, opponents countered that increasing pay would hurt the state's $36 billion-a-year agriculture industry, whose farmers sometimes operate on slim profit margins, and their employees, who probably would wind up with a pay cut.
Florez's bill passed on a 46-26 vote but faces an uncertain fate with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The former movie action hero from Austria and onetime bricklayer has a mixed record on agricultural labor issues.
He has signed into law a bill to prevent field workers from being poisoned by pesticides and backed regulations to protect them against heatstroke. He also has vetoed bills opposed by agribusiness that would have made it easier for unions to organize in the fields.
"I am hopeful that the governor's experience as an immigrant who initially supported himself through manual labor will give him empathy to grasp the importance of this bill to some of California's hardest workers," said Florez, a Democrat from Shafter.
The governor, who leaves office in January, has not made up his mind on the bill, a spokesman said.
Florez, who also is being forced out by term limits after 10 years in the Legislature, hopes passage of the overtime bill will be his career capper. He said he plans to personally lobby the governor for a signature.
If that doesn't work, Florez said he would seek support from California First Lady Maria Shriver and other members of her Kennedy family. Both of Shriver's late uncles, former U.S. Sens. Robert Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, were close to Cesar Chavez, the founder of the United Farm Workers union, and they fervently supported farmworker causes.
"It's a profile-in-courage moment for the governor," said Florez, referring to "Profiles in Courage," a 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography written by then U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy, who won the presidency five years later.
Schwarzenegger's endorsement of overtime would reverse a 1941 state law exempting agricultural employees from being paid one and one-half times their normal hourly rate after they work more than eight hours in a day.
That exemption was partially modified in 1976 when the Industrial Welfare Commission ordered overtime pay after 10 hours on the job and for all work on the seventh day of a week after putting in six straight days of 10 hours or more.
Giving farmworkers the same decades-old right to overtime after an eight-hour day that is given to supermarket clerks, construction workers, gardeners and even farm-related jobs such as fruit and vegetable packers is long overdue, proponents in the Assembly debate contended. Some Latino lawmakers, who backed Florez's SB 1121, recalled that they picked crops as youths alongside their farmworker parents.
"This is a vote for fairness," said Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada (D-Davis), whose Yolo County district includes UC Davis, the state's top agricultural school, and hundreds of large and small farms.
"It's a vote," she said, "to restore some semblance of justice to this population of laborers who have been excluded from overtime protections since the 1940s."
Supporters' concern for the welfare of farmworkers is misplaced, said Republican lawmakers from California's agriculture-rich Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.
"This bill is not a big pain for agriculture. We'll deal with it. It's no big deal. We'll run larger crews," said Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, who grows grapes near Ceres in Stanislaus County.
"The people this bill hurts are the very people it's intended to help," the Republican said. "It will reduce pay by an average of 20% to 30% for most farmworkers."
Farmers, who need to bring in perishable crops quickly to get them to market, probably won't replace experienced farmworkers just to save a couple of hours of overtime pay, said Assemblyman William Monning (D-Monterey), a former attorney for the United Farm Workers union.
"When you have a skilled crew working eight hours a day," he said, "you're not going to bring in another unskilled crew" to replace them.