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California lawmaker hopes to win one more for farmworkers

A bill by state Sen. Dean Florez would grant standard overtime pay to laborers in the fields. Growers say it could lead to cuts in hours. The United Farm Workers union isn't taking sides this time.

June 03, 2010|By Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Shafter, Calif. — Three decades ago, Dean Florez landed the perfect summer job in this sun-baked, Kern County farm town: filling burlap sacks with 50 pounds of potatoes, then sewing them shut with a steel needle and three loops of twine.

Farmworkers and overtime: A June 3 article in Section A about a bill to extend standard overtime benefits to farmworkers said that the state instituted overtime pay for farmworkers after 10 hours in a day in 2001. The first 10-hour-overtime order was made in 1976. —

It may not sound glamorous, but it was better than his previous job hauling irrigation pipe around rose and vegetable fields for 10 and 12 hours a day in triple-digit heat. Plus, the teenage Florez got to work under a roof, eat lunch in a refrigerated rail car and put in for overtime on long days.

"Sometimes we'd get five or six hours of overtime in a week. It was really good money," Florez, 47, recalled. "Working in the potato packing house was a step up, at least in this town."

Packing house workers, unlike field hands, were classified by the state as non-agricultural hourly employees and thus were eligible for overtime.

Florez went on to UCLA, Harvard Business School and the California Legislature, where he is now Senate majority leader.

Unable to seek reelection because of term limits, Florez (D-Shafter) is hoping to see one more bill signed into law before he leaves the Legislature: a measure that would extend the overtime benefits he enjoyed as a potato packer to hundreds of thousands of California farmworkers.

"It's a priority for me and is my last bill to help farmworkers," said Florez, whose father and grandparents picked crops. "Before I leave I want to attempt to have an argument about farmworkers and what they are paid."

His bill, SB 1121, would eliminate a 69-year-old exemption in labor laws that denies farmworkers the same overtime pay that other hourly workers earn. It is scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor this week, but it faces powerful opponents in the state's agribusiness lobby.

What's more, his longtime ally — the United Farm Workers union — is staying on the sidelines for this one.

UFW spokeswoman Maria Machuca declined to say whether the union founded by Cesar Chavez even has a position on the Florez overtime bill. She did say that some farmworkers "fear that growers will reduce their hours if the general standard on overtime is applied to them."

People who have conferred with UFW leaders say the group is concentrating all its political firepower this year on a measure that would make it easier for it to win union organizing elections. Union leaders are fearful that the overtime bill could be a costly distraction, these people say.

Nevertheless, other farmworker union officials and Florez said they were puzzled by the UFW's stance.

"I have no idea why a labor organization would be against workers receiving an overtime benefit that's better than what they have now," said Pete Maturino, agricultural division director of Local 5 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents farmworkers in the Salinas Valley.

The Legislature exempted farmworkers from earning overtime pay in 1941. That prohibition was unchanged until 2001, when the state Industrial Welfare Commission voted to pay farmworkers overtime after 10 hours on the job in a single day and 60 hours in a week. Other hourly workers in the state get overtime after eight hours a day and 40 hours a week.

California farmers argue that the double standard is appropriate because of the unique nature of agricultural work.

"Wage laws in other industries and businesses cannot be equated with those in farming due to farming's unpredictability, seasonality of work and the dynamics of the weather and the harvest system," said a statement from a consortium of 28 agricultural groups, which includes the Alliance of Western Milk Producers and the Wine Institute, which is opposing SB 1121.

Farmers also complain that they already are hamstrung by too much government regulation, and that their profit margins could not survive what they estimate would be a 10% hike in labor costs under the bill.

Even with its 10-hour day, California is the only state in the nation that offers any overtime pay to farmworkers, growers point out. They contend that SB 1121 actually would harm farmworkers because employers would cut back on the number of hours any individual could work.

Farmworker advocates counter that 10 hours is too long a workday not to provide extra compensation when summer temperatures in the Central Valley often exceed 100 degrees.

"Guys working 10 hours are working a whole lot harder than guys working eight hours," said Don Villarejo, a Davis-based consultant on agricultural labor issues. "Such a long workday is not a very good idea."

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