Ag Today, September 14, 2016

Humboldt County farmers weigh in on new OT law

By Manny Araujo, maraujo@times-standard.com

Humboldt County farm and dairy owners this week warned that a farmworker overtime bill signed into law on Monday will mean less money for individual farmhands as businesses look to reduce labor costs.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed an agriculture labor law on Monday that will soon allow farm workers across the state to earn the same overtime pay as other workers on the job 40 hours a week or eight hours a day, ending a nearly 80-year-long battle between labor activists and farmers.

Touted as a victory by United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez that will usher in fairer wages, Assembly Bill 1066 will gradually require farmers to pay time-and-half to its farmhands.

“We’ve been able to break the barrier for farmworkers here in California,” Rodriguez said Monday.

But farmers in Humboldt County said their workers will end up losing out and make less money as farmers look toward adding more equipment and employees to their operations to avoid paying overtime.

“There is only a certain pay level that you can pay farmers’ workers and still stay in business,” MaryAnn Renner of Diamond Dairy in Ferndale said.

Renner said the overtime will force farmers to hire more workers to avoid longer shifts and overtime.

“You’ll just have to decrease the number of hours or hire more employees,” she said, adding that the lower threshold for overtime pay will mean that employees that worked 60 hours a week in the past will receive a lighter pay check at the end of the month when they cap at 40 hours.

About 419,500 agricultural workers will be affected by the new overtime law, according to the state Office of Employment and Labor Statistics, which said the numbers were very rough estimates based on the 2015 reports — the last year for which data is available. Further complicating accurate estimates are farmworkers’ mobility, immigration status, and the seasonal, short-term nature of their work.

An estimated 178,400 of the total agricultural workforce tended to work during crop seasons.

Humboldt County farmers said those seasonal workers were the most likely to work overtime because, traditionally, farm workers have worked longer hours to compensate for the short work period, which lasts for as long as the harvest each season.

Blake Alexandre, who operates two farms in Humboldt County and one in Del Norte County, said workers prefer to take the longer shifts during harvest season because it means they can save the money during periods of inactivity when they might not be working.

“They have to work while the sun is still shining,” Alexandre said. “… They often like to work six days a week or work 10- or 12-hour shifts to accumulate the hours while the weather is good.”

John Vevoda of Vevoda Dairy in Ferndale agreed but said he might not be able to hire the extra workers, so he’ll have to rely on advances in farm technology to keep up with the demands of his farm. He said farmworkers aren’t easy to come by, so replacing them won’t be easy.

“It will be difficult to find more; people don’t wont want to do the work,” he said.

Alexandre and Renner agreed, even though they both said their plans was still to look for more workers, and said lawmakers ended up reducing the total income farmworkers could earn since farmers will not have the budgets to let them work the extra hours at time-and-a-half rate.

“They don’t care about working 60 or 40 hours; they care about their check and their take-home pay,” she said. “And, they’ll end up not making more only because they aren’t allowed to.”