Farmworkers Fight For Overtime Pay and Better Working Conditions

Photo of central coast field workers by Lily Dayton/CHR.
Photo of central coast field workers by Lily Dayton/CHR.

The sun has just nosed above the horizon when Maria Espinosa (not her real name) ties a bandana over her face to protect herself from pesticides and dust, and reaches for a blackberry bush. Paid by the amount of berries she picks plus a $3-per-hour wage, Espinosa works feverishly for 10 hours, stopping only briefly for short breaks and lunch. For that day in early May, Espinosa would receive no overtime pay.

California’s 441,000 agricultural employees harvest one-third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts. The state’s 76,400 farms and ranches earned approximately $54 billion for their 2014 harvests, according to the most recent crop report. Yet the median personal income of farmworkers statewide is just $14,000 a year.

Unlike nearly all other employees in the U.S., farmworkers aren’t eligible for overtime pay unless they work more than 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week. Because of pressure from Southern lawmakers who wanted to maintain a low-wage black workforce, farm workers (along with domestic workers and other primarily African-American workforces) were exempted from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, leaving them without federal standards for overtime pay, basic union organizing rights and other worker protections.

“We work very hard and make little. … Why should we be treated differently?” Espinosa says.

Farmworkers have long organized for better wages and working conditions. In the 1930s, the Communist Party helped found some of the first unions in the California fields. Half a century later, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta took up the farmworkers’ cause through the United Farm Workers (UFW), organizing in central and southern California—in some of the same regions where Espinosa works today.

Despite these efforts—partly because of the failure to end legal barriers, partly because of the UFW’s degeneration near the end of Cesar Chavez’s life—farmworkers continue to be excluded from many labor protections. And even the rights they do have, such as wage protections and health and safety codes, are routinely violated. Growers have historically found it easy to exploit the seasonal workforce, many of whom are undocumented and may fear deportation.

A fall 2015 study by the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) of farmworkers in California’s agriculture-rich Ventura and Santa Barbara counties found numerous violations of labor law. More than a third of those who responded said they had experienced wage theft, either unpaid for some of the hours they worked, not given their last paycheck, or paid less than the minimum wage. About 20 percent of those surveyed in Ventura County said they didn’t have access to clean drinking water or restrooms, half said they experienced negative health effects from pesticide exposure. “Sometimes I’ll get a rash or bumps on my hand when they spray in the fields,” says Espinosa. “We’ll go home scratching our eyes.”

Espinosa worries about how the pesticide residue she brings home on her clothes affects her kids. She says a coworker recently had a miscarriage and believes pesticide exposure was the cause.

John Zaragoza, who represents much of the agricultural portion of Ventura County on its board of supervisors, says he has heard farmworkers are retaliated against for reporting violations to advocates or supervisors.

Espinosa initially spoke without a psuedonym, but a few days later called, panicked that she would lose her job if her supervisor discovered she had spoken out. “I need the job,” Espinosa said. “I have to support my children.”

For decades, advocates and farmworkers have lobbied local, state and federal governments to fix the gaps in the farmworker protections. Now, in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, advocates are pushing for a “farmworker’s bill of rights,” inspired by the CAUSE report, that would ensure access to drinking water and clean bathrooms, and curb pesticide exposure, wage theft and sexual harassment—none of which are monitored closely enough by regulators, activists say. At the state level in California, a bill that would have provided farmworkers with overtime pay after working an eight-hour shift failed by four votes on June 2, after a heated debate. Democrats swayed by the agriculture industry cast the decisive votes, with eight opposing and seven abstaining.

“We are disappointed and disgusted with our legislators representing Oxnard and Santa Maria, the two biggest farmworker communities in our region, who DID NOT support the farmworker overtime bill,” CAUSE said in a statement.

More than 100 community organizations, businesses and elected officials in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties have endorsed the bill of rights. The state-level overtime bill, introduced by California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez in March, had the backing of the UFW and the state secretaries of agriculture and labor.

In recent years, similar overtime bills have twice come close to becoming law: In 2010 the legislature voted to grant overtime to farmworkers, but the bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; a few years later a similar proposal failed by one vote.

After the June vote, Gonzalez said she would try another bill in 2017.

California isn’t the only state pursuing new protective legislation for farmworkers: Advocates in New York are pressing Gov. Andrew Cuomo to pass collective bargaining rights for agricultural workers. Cuomo has pledged not to oppose the bill.

In Ventura County, Zaragoza says he is “alarmed” by the reports of worker conditions and expects the board of supervisors to consider the issue at coming meetings.

But growers in the area have pushed back against the campaign, questioning the validity of the report, says Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director for CAUSE. The largest grower in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, Reiter Affiliated Companies, referred questions to the California Strawberry Commission and the Ventura County Farm Bureau; the local farm bureau did not return calls seeking comment. Carolyn O’Donnell, spokeswoman for the Strawberry Commission, will not comment on the overtime bill, but says that many of the other requests farmworkers have are already on the books.

“I’m not exactly sure how adding on this farmworker’s bill of rights does anything to what already exists,” she says.

Sitting in the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project’s office in downtown Oxnard after working a 10-hour shift, Espinosa thinks about what overtime pay, or the ability to take a sick day, might mean for her and her five children. “We’re not treated fairly,” Espinosa says, “and so we suffer.” Then she glances at her phone, checking the time. She’s eager to get home to her kids. It has been a long day. She has been up since 4 a.m. It will be the same tomorrow.

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