By Sean Raycraft
Tuesday July 26, County Supervisor Don Saylor advanced a motion to support Assembly Bill 1066, (Lorena Gonzalez-D San Diego). The bill would extend overtime protections to farm workers in the state of California, phased in over several years. It will be heard in State Senate Appropriations in the coming weeks. A similar bill, AB 2757, failed 38-35 to advance when several Assembly Democrats sided with Republicans or did not vote on the bill. AB 1066 is a “gut and amend bill,” which will have to pass through the Senate, then return to the Assembly.
Several members of the community spoke in favor of the resolution, including County Superintendent of Schools Jesse Ortiz, community organizer Steven Payan and myself. Mr. Ortiz spoke about the inequalities faced by farm worker families, undocumented students and poverty in Yolo County, and how those inequalities harm educational opportunities.
Payan spoke about his experience working in the fields, the harsh conditions, and how it is often the last option of employment for desperate people, himself included. He spoke at length about the need to reverse the decades of institutional racism faced by farm workers who are 92% Latino. He said, “If 92% of farm workers were white, I don’t think we would be having this conversation.”
For my part, I spoke about the food production chain. Everyone who touches food after that farm worker puts the produce on the truck gets overtime protections. The truckers, warehouse workers, and grocery clerks all get overtime protections, so why shouldn’t the people who actually touch the food first?
“Today it’s going to be 106 degrees and there are going to be farm workers outside working long hours in that heat. It’s time to bring this era of institutional racism to an end.” Jeff Merwin, President of the Yolo County Farm Bureau, spoke against the measure, making the incredulous claim that farm worker overtime would actually harm farm workers, by implying that overtime for farm workers would somehow cause farm workers to work less than a 40-hour work week.
I say this comment is incredulous because everyone who pays attention to the agriculture industry knows there is a huge labor shortage for farmers.
Meanwhile, farmers across California and the country are speaking out about the shortage. A quick google search of “farmer labor shortage” will show inquisitive readers volumes about the issue. Here is a quote from the American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall from June 30, 2016.
“This is a serious issue for farmers across America,” said AFBF President Zippy Duvall. “If you have a crop that’s ready and your harvest window is narrow and your workers show up late – you’re going to lose your crop.”
“We’re going to have to make a choice,” Duvall added. “We either have to import our labor – workers to harvest our crops – or we’ll have to import our food.”
The point is that there simply are not enough skilled workers willing to work those hours, at those low wages, in those terrible working conditions. The farmers cannot simply hire more farm hands to help with the labor shortage, because, if they could, they would be doing so already. What person who is not extremely desperate would accept minimum wage for 60 hours a week, with no overtime, to do back breaking labor, in intense heat, and risk being sprayed by pesticides?
To take this back to the comforts of the air conditioning and the plush seats of the board of supervisors chamber, Don Saylor made some excellent points in his opening remarks. He mentioned the history of his mother, who was a waitress.
He said, “Overtime and minimum wages were concerns for those workers, and now they have those protections.” (We still have restaurants and waitresses). He continued, “The best way to attack poverty is a job that pays you enough money to support yourself and a family.” I tend to agree with that assessment.
There is no reason why the people, who work to make sure the rest of society is well fed, should face tough decisions about decent food for themselves and their families because they are paid so little.
Supervisor Rexroad, for his part, was dismissive of the motion, claiming the issue was “irrelevant to our mission.” Oscar Villegas was skeptical of the motion, and seemed to waffle between citing unintended consequences, irrelevance, and stating that “he had talked to the farmers in his district, and he didn’t seem to think there were any issues.”
But he did ask the board to consider a task force to look into farm worker inequities. He said, “We ought to create a task force that looks into some of the farm worker inequities brought forth by testimony today. If we want to do something real, let’s do that.”
Supervisor Provenza had good things to say: “I don’t think anyone really wants to work 60 hours a week in the hot sun for poverty wages.”
He continued, “These are rights that every single other worker has in the nation and California, except for farm workers, who were left out because they are Latino.” Later in the meeting, a majority of the board agreed to work to build a task force looking into farm worker inequities, which will be formed at a later date.
A video of the segment can be seen here: http://yolocountyca.swagit.com/play/07262016-708
Unfortunately for us advocates, the motion failed 2-2, with Saylor and Provenza voting yes, while Villegas and Rexroad voted no, with Chamberlain abstaining. In many ways, this may actually be a victory for farm worker advocates.
Recently I toured several migrant farm worker labor camps, and I can honestly say the issues faced by farm workers will not be solved by one simple bill.
I will be writing about this issue all summer long, as it is far too much to tackle in one sitting. Needless to say, I will be watching the efforts of the Supervisors to solve some of the issues facing farm workers in Yolo County.
Sean Raycraft is a lifelong Davis resident, and a proud Shop Steward with UFCW 8