What's at stake?
California agricultural employees and employers say they are losing money as the ag industry adjusts to a new state law that extends overtime pay to farmworkers. Some workers say their struggling to survive as their hours have been slashed from 60 hours per week to 40 hours per week in recent years.
As a 2016 California law requiring agricultural employers to pay overtime continues to roll out in 2023, farmworkers and employers alike say the policy is costing them money.
“Last year was one of the worst years that we ever had financially,” said Marco Mendoza, a farmworker based in the Fresno County city of Kerman in an interview with The Bee/Fresnoland on Tuesday.
Farmworkers say since the new law passed, they’re largely not being paid overtime, and their hours – and take-home pay – have been reduced as a result, making it harder to cover basic living expenses such as food and rent.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown signed the law in 2016 creating a ‘historic’ expansion of overtime rules for farmworkers.
As of Jan. 1, agricultural employers who employ 25 or fewer employees must start to pay overtime, or 1.5 rate of regular pay, to their employees that work over 50 hours a week, or nine hours per day. As of last year, larger agricultural employers with 26 or more employees have been required to pay overtime to workers who work above 40 hours per week, or eight hours per day. Full implementation of the law will be in effect by 2025.
The new overtime law has been “frustrating” for ag employers and employees alike as the exceeded operational costs has forced growers to slash hours, said Ian LeMay, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association, in an interview with The Bee/Fresnoland on Wednesday. The association is one of several ag industry groups that opposed the law when it was introduced in the California legislature.
Like many farmworker stories shared with The Bee/Fresnoland, Mendoza, 34, currently works for a labor contractor pruning stone fruit trees like peaches and nectarines in Dinuba, over an hour away from his home. He said over the past two years, his weekly take-home pay dropped from $1,000 to around $600 ever since his hours were slashed from 60 hours a week to 40 hours per week.
“I have a family to feed,” Mendoza said. “Honestly, we can hardly make it through.”
Overtime law ‘shaking’ foundations of ag industry
The law has prompted growers to cut hours, reduce acreage farmed to accommodate their crew sizes, and hire more workers to complete harvests, LeMay said.
Others, he said, have started turning towards automation and mechanization in the fields or have switched to less labor-intensive crops.
“We’ve been transitioning over the last four or five seasons,” he said, “and the reality is that it’s changing the way in which my members are having to do their business.”
Representatives from the United Farm Workers union, who backed the law, said that’s exactly the point.
Antonio De Loera-Brust, communications director for the United Farm Workers, said he sympathizes with the difficult transition growers are experiencing – but added that the growing pains are part of a movement towards a more just agricultural economy, where farmworkers have the same rights as other workers.
“The amount of workers that are getting their hours cut,” he said, “speaks to the reality that there was a ton of unpaid overtime.”
Plus, De Loera-Brust said, farmworkers often live right at the poverty line, a “reality” that California agriculture has been built on for decades.
“Any attempt to change that,” he said, “is shaking the very foundations of the industry.”
Unclear how often ag employers pay overtime
There is a lack of reliable data available on how many, or how frequently, agricultural employers pay overtime.
The California Department of Industrial Relations didn’t immediately respond to The Bee/Fresnoland’s questions on how the state is enforcing the law or any data they have on its implementation. The Bee/Fresnoland also reached out to agricultural and labor researchers, as well as industry associations, who also said that only anecdotal evidence is available.
LeMay of the CFFA, however, said his members would love to be able to pay more hours to farmworkers, but their labor costs are already around 70% of their operational costs. He said CFFA members likely pay their workers a few hours of overtime per week “in times of need,” such as during peak harvest season.
However, ag employers are “not going to do that (pay overtime) for three to four months on end as the standard business practice,” LeMay said, saying it’s neither a common business practice in any industry nor financially feasible to do so.
Meanwhile, farm labor contractors, which growers often use to supply a crew of farmworkers, have their own challenges with the implementation of the farmworker overtime law.
“As a generalization, I would say yes, small FLC (farm labor contractor) employers are still expected to complete the same amount of work without a corresponding increase in pay from their grower clients,” Nigel Bocanegra, executive director of the California Farm Labor Contractor Association, said in an email to The Bee/Fresnoland.
He said FLCs now have to factor in these increased labor costs when negotiating their grower client contracts.
De Loera-Brust of the UFW, meanwhile, said that farmworkers in workplaces covered by union contracts are more likely to have access to overtime pay.
Farmworkers paying the price of adjustment to overtime law
Some say the challenges the industry faces are part of the adjustment process to the new law, which won’t be fully implemented until 2025.
“These kinds of adjustments that happen as overtime takes effect have been forgotten in most other industries,” said De Loera-Brust, of the UFW, “but I’m sure it was not popular…when overtime was implemented in a manufacturing plant.”
Agricultural employers did warn that pay cuts would come as a result of the law.
In a 2016 survey conducted by the Western Growers Association of 148 members, over 80% responded that they would reduce wages as a result of both the overtime law and the $15 minimum wage law.
On top of slashed hours in the fields, farmworkers like Mendoza said inflation has added to their financial hardships – even as minimum wage increased to $15.50 in California in 2023.
Mendoza said inflation means farmworkers like him are “stuck in the same place.”
“Just working 40 hours,” he said, “is not enough.”
Irene de Barraicua, director of operations for Líderes Campesinas, a nonprofit organization that supports female farmworkers, said the challenges associated with implementing the overtime pay law reflect the “long-standing issue” that many farmworkers live in poverty.
Rather than working overtime “like most of us will do for that extra recreation money,” de Barraicua said farmworkers rely on overtime hours to put food on the table.
“They shouldn’t have to depend, even, on overtime to survive,” she said, “but many of them obviously do.”
California employers with questions on the law and its requirements are asked to contact: MakeItFair@dir.ca.gov
Farmworkers who think they’ve experienced wage theft, which includes not being paid overtime pay, can find more information on state resources and legal assistance here.