More Water and Shade Might Help “Worst” Farmworker Shortage Ever

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Growers in California are complaining that there are too few farm laborers available to pick  crops in the country’s largest agricultural state. They point to stronger border controls, a crummy domestic economy and a lackluster guest worker program as reasons for a situation characterized by farmer Craig Underwood as “the worst it’s been, ever.”

Seldom mentioned by growers, for obvious reasons, is the low pay, 110-degree heat (that is only made worse by global warming) and insufficient resources provided to workers in the field. Base pay probably isn’t going up any time soon and the heat is not going down, but there could be some movement in the area of working conditions and overtime pay.

Legislation proposed by Democratic Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, the Farm Worker Safety Act (AB 2346), would require that water be available within 10 feet of workers and shade within 200 feet. The bill provides hefty penalties for those who break the rules and allows farmworkers to sue over failed conditions.

A second bill, AB 2676, sponsored by Assemblyman Charles Calderon, would make it a misdemeanor, punishable by jail and/or fine, to deny farmworkers proper water and shade.   

More than 400,000 workers, performing back-breaking work on 35,000 farms in California, are the cornerstone of the state’s $37-billion agricultural industry. Since 2005, 16 farmworkers have died from heat-related illness. Two more deaths this summer are still being investigated.

Although federal regulations do not address standards for heat stress, 21 states, including California, have established their own safety programs. California’s regulations include some provisions for water and shade when temperatures reach 85 degrees

The Western Growers Association is reporting a 20% drop in laborers this year, many of them illegal immigrants. There is virtually no hiring of local residents to work in the fields. Although the economy has crippled the construction industry, none of those laid off workers have migrated to farm work that often pays about half what they wer making. Meanwhile, some farmers are leaving crops in the field

In addition to adequate water and shade, lawmakers are also considering giving farmworkers the same overtime pay as most other non-management workers. Right now,  there is a special exemption in the law—dating back to 1941—that prevents farmworkers from collecting overtime unless they work a 10-hour day or 60-hour week, rather than the standard 8-hour day/40-hour week.

Opponents of AB 1313, introduced by Democratic Assemblyman Michael Allen, say the bill would hurt farmworkers if passed because growers would cut their hours or switch to mechanical methods of harvest rather than pay overtime. Then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed similar legislation in 2010.

“These workers like this,” Republican state Senator Tom Berryhill told the Sacramento Bee in defense of the current law. “It gives them flexibility. After 10 hours, everyone gets their overtime.”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Weighs Tougher Heat Rules for Farmworkers (by Gosia Wozniacka,

Associated Press)

California Farm Labor Shortage “Worst It's Been, Ever” (by Jane Wells, CNBC)

California Considers Farmworker Overtime Bill (by Don Thompson, Associated Press)

Thirst for Justice: Making Farm Work Safer (United Farm Workers)

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