MENDOTA, California - Many California farmworkers who make up the backbone of the nation’s No. 1 agricultural state were praising historic legislation that brings them closer to receiving the same overtime pay as the rest of the state’s workers who are paid by the hour.
If signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, a new overtime bill would put California at the forefront nationally of farm labor pay and mark a victory in the fight to improve farmworkers rights in the decades old movement launched by Cesar Chavez, the legendary co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association who fought for higher farm worker pay.
Brown, a Democrat, has not said whether he’ll sign the bill, making it the first law of its kind for the U.S.
Florentino Reyes, 48, has been picking tomatoes and working a wide variety of crops in California’s fertile Central Valley for more than two decades and says he could make another $60 weekly. That would give him more purchasing power to buy better food and clothes for his wife and three children and ease his stress over paying down bills.
“For me, it’s discrimination,” said Reyes, finishing up Tuesday’s harvesting of green tomatoes near the town of Mendota.
But other farmworkers are nervous about California farmers’ claims that the higher overtime pay could hurt them economically and outprice California products from the marketplace in favor of crops grown in other states and countries.
Gonzalo Najera, who drives a tractor on Salinas Valley’s lettuce, carrots and broccoli fields, said some farmers are saying the extra overtime payments could drive them out of the state, but he doesn’t buy the argument.
“The growers can’t leave,” Najera said. “They can’t take their dirt with them.”
The 35-year-old father of four also has parents back in Mexico, who rely on money he regularly sends. He earns about $33,000 a year and said he has worked seven days a week since March this year. The added overtime pay he expects to receive will correct a longstanding injustice so farm workers are no longer treated as second-class California employees, Najera said.
Under the current law, California employers must pay time-and-a-half to farmworkers after 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week. Lawmakers in Sacramento on Monday sent the legislation to Brown that would give them overtime after eight hours in a day or 40 hours a week. It’s backed by the United Farm Workers, which Chavez helped found in 1962, more than three decades before his death.
Farmers vehemently oppose it, and third-generation almond and olive farmer Pat Ricchiuti said approval by Brown could prompt him to cut his workers’ take-home pay by as much as 33 percent. The Fresno Country farmer says he and others he knows would respond by limiting crews to eight hours by finding other workers and increasing their use of farm machinery.
“It is really, really sad,” he said. “The only people getting hurt in this are the workers.”
Ricchuiti argued that farming shouldn’t be compared to other industries, because it’s seasonal, susceptible to unpredictable weather and the availability of water, a scarce resource in drought-stricken California, he said. Each of these limit when he needs workers to certain times of the year, he said.
Farm worker Juan Valencia, 39, who raises calves on a Fresno County dairy, said he often works more than 60 hours weekly and gets overtime but fears his boss might cut him to 40 hours -- making it hard for him to support his wife and two young children.
“They make it sound pretty. It’s not going to be pretty at all,” said Valencia, who earns about $32,000 a year. “I’m going to have to look for another job.”
Reyes, the tomato picker, said the farmers’ claims are political heat aimed at trying to prevent Brown from giving him the same pay protections that the rest of California’s hourly workers have.
“We’ve been waiting for this change,” he said.