SACRAMENTO — The state Senate passed a bill Monday that seeks to eliminate a decades-old law that excludes agricultural workers from receiving overtime pay after working more than eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week.
AB 1313 would lower overtime pay eligibility for farm laborers from 10 hours of work in a single day to eight and from 60 hours in a week to 40. It also would require growers to provide laborers breaks to eat and rest during overtime work.
The Senate vote split along party lines 22-15, with most Democrats in support. Of the two senators who represent much of Ventura County, Sen. Tony Strickland, R-Moorpark, joined with opponents, and Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, abstained.
"People are entitled to some period of recreation, rest and relief from the work that they do," Sen. Joe Simitian, D- Palo Alto, told the Senate before the vote. The bill's author, Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa, said the measure provides the same protection for farmworkers as other farmers are entitled to.
The bill would erase a law excluding overtime compensation rights to farmworkers that was established in 1938 under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Along with establishing a federal minimum wage and prohibiting oppressive child labor, the act sets statutory minimum requirements for labor laws in all states
In 1941, the California Legislature chose to exempt all agricultural employees from the statutory requirements of overtime. Subsequently, by regulation, a provision was added granting farmworkers overtime after 10 hours in a day.
In 2010, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill. In his veto message, he wrote that the change would add burdens on business, resulting in less employment and lower wages.
Opponents Monday echoed that sentiment, arguing that lowering overtime eligibility to eight hours would prompt growers to rely more on machinery than laborers to pick crops.
"Many folks come from out of the country. They want to get time in. They want to work," said Sen. Doug La Malfa, R-Richvale. "When measures like this happen, then employees and companies respond to more machinery."
The bill is opposed by the California Farm Bureau Federation, the Western Growers Association, the Wine Institute and associations representing growers of crops such as pistachios to cotton.
The bill will go back to the Assembly for final approval before possibly being sent to Gov. Jerry Brown. The Assembly passed the original version 52-27 in June 2011. It must be acted on before the Legislature adjourns at the end of next week.
If the bill becomes law, Ventura County could be particularly susceptible to relying on mechanical farming, a trend already prevalent at some local farms, said Bill Watkins, executive director of the Center for Economic Research and Forecasting at California Lutheran University. Watkins also thinks employers will find ways to prevent laborers from working 40 hours in a week.
"Because of the structure of the labor market in Ventura County, there's probably not going to be much benefit to the individual farmworkers," Watkins said.
But Marc Grossman, a spokesman for United Farm Workers, said opponents use the same argument any time new legislation is introduced that seeks to protect the rights of farm laborers. Instead, proponents like Grossman see AB 1313 as a victory for workers' rights and call California's current overtime compensation laws for farmworkers archaic.
"It has far-reaching impacts for farmworkers, but really at the core of the issue is one of equity," Grossman said. "Are farmworkers not entitled to the same treatment that all other workers receive? They do some of the hardest and most dangerous (jobs) under conditions other workers won't tolerate."