Agricultural Workers Get Historic Overtime Rights
A new California bill will phase in standard overtime pay for agricultural workers by 2025. Currently, farm workers in the state receive overtime if they work more than 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week. The new law will require time and a half pay for over 8 hours of work a day or 40 hours of work a week, and double time after 12 hours, effective by 2022 for large employers and 2025 for smaller family farms. Correcting an oversight that has gone almost completely unchallenged for the last 80 years, the bill will provide protections for workers who do some of the most physically demanding work in one of the largest sectors of the state economy. The reasons for the anomalous exemption relate to the nature of agricultural work as well as historic discrimination based on race, nationality, and undocumented status.
The abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables that grow in neatly combed rows of California farms stand in stark contrast to the poverty of the people who grow them. Agricultural workers are some of the poorest in the nation, with 30% living below the federal poverty line. An estimated 48%-70% of farmworkers are undocumented, with 98% emigrating from Mexico and Central America. Many of these individuals are part of the H2A program, which gives migrant workers temporary work visas to perform seasonal work. Though the money earned from farm work is often attractive for individuals with families to feed in their country of origin, the H2A program places migrant workers in a vulnerable position. Enforcement of existing laws is lean and fraught with complications, and workers often face hostile working conditions and abusive employers.
How did agricultural workers get left out of important protections afforded to the rest of the labor force despite working in one of the top three most dangerous industries in the United States? The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was originally put forth in 1938 alongside President Roosevelt’s New Deal as a way to reinvigorate a nation on its knees after the Great Depression. The FLSA was created to regulate wages, working hours, and child labor for the massive influx of workers into city factories after the crop-destroying Dust Bowl. After Roosevelt’s first piece of legislation for industrial reform failed on grounds of federal power unconstitutionally attempting to regulate intrastate commerce, he drafted the FLSA carefully to emphasize its legal purview over interstate commerce. Though the construction of the FLSA applied to all industries and workers engaged in interstate commerce, the bill nevertheless contained the exemption for agricultural workers before it reached Congress for consideration.
The main proponents for the exemption were Southern farmers who feared “the impact of suddenly paying a livable, albeit minimum, wage coupled with the potential of expensive overtime compensation would be greatly felt by producers with large-scale operations; therefore, these producers lobbied extensively for the exemption. Their employees, the field and farm workers, unlike their industrial counterparts, were left with little political influence due to their lack of persuasive organization.” These lobbyists pointed out that agriculture was largely a local endeavor, with smaller farms serving their immediate communities, making it intrastate commerce and therefore outside the purview of federal legislation. The majority of Southern fieldworkers at the time were black and lacked the political clout in a Jim Crow era to argue against the exemption, though the National Negro Congress criticized the exemption as discrimination against black workers.
Lobbyists used the seasonal nature of agricultural work to further argue for the exemption, stating that consumer prices would rise untenably if farms were forced to pay their workers more. The agricultural lobby continues to advance this point in present day, even though Philip Martin, a labor economist at the University of California, Davis, has noted that “If farm wages rose 40 percent, and this wage increase were passed on to consumers, average spending on fresh fruits and vegetables would rise about $15 a year, the cost of two movie tickets. However, for a typical seasonal farm worker, a 40 percent wage increase could raise earnings from $10,000 for 1,000 hours of work to $14,000 — lifting the wage above the federal poverty line.” For these reasons, along with the American tradition of considering agriculture an industry uniquely worthy of protection, the exemption stayed in the bill in order to extend labor protections to the rest of the country.
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