Reporting from Sacramento — Saying he didn't want to damage California's agricultural economy, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday vetoed a first-in-the-nation bill that would have given farmworkers the same rights to overtime pay enjoyed by all other hourly workers in California.
Applying the eight-hour day to agriculture would be burdensome to business and reverse longstanding labor practices, Schwarzenegger wrote in a veto message.
As recently as 1999, state lawmakers approved a bill that specifically exempted farmworkers from the eight-hour day, he said, "recognizing that agricultural work is different from other industries: it is seasonal, subject to unpredictability of Mother Nature and requires the harvesting of perishable goods."
The veto message echoed arguments made by both giant agribusinesses and organic-farm owners. They contended that growers need special exemptions from labor laws because they operate on tight profit margins and need to work long hours to harvest crops quickly to get them to market.
Payroll costs would rise at least 10% if overtime were paid after eight hours, lobbyists for big agriculture said.
Supporters of the bill countered that it's simply wrong to treat the people who tend and pick crops differently from the workers who pack the produce into boxes or sell the fruits and vegetables in grocery stores. Those related jobs carry extra pay for work beyond eight hours a day.
"The governor's decision is a blow to fairness and justice. We will have to wait for a new governor to right this wrong," said state Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D- Sacramento), referring to Schwarzenegger's status as a lame duck who leaves office in January.
Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez (D-Shafter), who sponsored the measure, accused the governor of "turning his back on history" by choosing "to continue the second-class treatment of the men and women who toil in the fields, their backbreaking labor at the core of a more than $30-billion-a-year agricultural industry."
The bill by Florez, whose parents and grandparents picked roses and vegetables in the San Joaquin Valley, would have reversed a 1941 state law exempting agricultural employees from being paid 11/2 times their normal hourly rate after they work more than eight hours in day.
The exemption was modified in 1976 when state labor regulators authorized payment of overtime after 10 hours on the job in a single day and for all work on a seventh day of a week after putting in six straight days of 10 hours or more.
California is the only state that provides for any overtime to agricultural workers.
Switching to an eight-hour day, while well intentioned, could hurt both consumers and farmworkers, said Judith Redmond, a manager of Full Belly Farm, which grows organic produce in the Capay Valley north of Sacramento.
"Instead of the wages that we now pay, we would have to be conservative because payroll costs would rise very significantly," Redmond wrote in a recent newsletter to customers. "In effect, the new law would turn the job into a minimum-wage job.... The farmworkers would net out at less pay."
Even if farmers reduced their workers' hours, they still would have to add more shifts to do the same amount of harvesting, said Don Villarejo, an agriculture policy consultant.
"Farmers would adjust, if they had to, to a new eight-hour day," said Villarejo, a retired director of the California Institute for Rural Studies in Davis.
What's more, he said, working shorter days would reduce the threat of injuries and fatalities that farmworkers face because "working long hours under the hot California sun puts workers at risk."