By Sean Raycraft
On June 29, 2016, dozens and dozens of people packed into room 2040 at the state capitol to listen to the State Senate Committee on Labor and Industrial Relations debate and vote on AB 1066, the newly resurrected farm worker overtime bill. The bill is a “gut and amend” version of AB 2757, a bill that over a period of 6 years would gradually phase in 8 hour day and 40 hour week overtime protections for farm workers. The bill also has provisions that allow the governor to arrest the progression, if certain economic conditions occur, like a recession. In that way, it is very similar to SB 3, the $15 an hour minimum wage bill. There were so many people in that room, there was hardly any room to stand, so the term “standing room only” doesn’t really give justice to the crowd size. The authors Joaquin Arambula (Democrat, Fresno) and Lorena Gonzalez (Democrat San Diego) spoke at length about the need to extend 8 hour, 40 hour work week overtime to farm workers. Gonzalez is a granddaughter of a Bracero, Arambula a son of farm workers. They both know the extraordinary difficulties that farm worker families face. Long hours, low pay, no overtime and broken, brown bodies. Arambula, who is an emergency room doctor by trade spoke to the committee about the health hazards of long hours of manual labor in the hundred degree heat. He spoke about the tragedies he has personally witnessed, where undocumented farm workers have died in his emergency room as a result of dehydration, heat stroke and exhaustion. These are avoidable tragedies. It was quite the speech to witness.
In contrast, Republican Jeff Stone of Temecula struck a different tone. He complained that as a farmer, the heat this year has killed 20 percent of his grape crop. He spoke about globalization, foreign competition, carrots, blueberries, the widening of the Panama Canal and Chile. The Senator talked about increased costs and even brought out the dreaded “job killer” label so popular in political circles. He also had the audacity to complain about how legislative staffers at the Capitol don’t have the luxury of overtime protections. Lorena Gonzalez rebutted those remarks by pointing out the inherent hypocrisy of comparing legislative staffers, who wear comfortable clothes, work in air conditioning and expensive shoes to those workers who are out picking grapes in the very heat that is killing the good State Senator’s grapes. She pointed out that when the air conditioning at the capitol is broken, the legislature adjourns “out of concern for the health and welfare of the staff and legislators”. Farm workers are not afforded such favorable working conditions.
The line of supporters was out the door. Representatives from organized labor, social justice groups, the ACLU, the United Farm Workers, actual farm workers and rank and file citizens spoke about how this injustice has gone on too long, and now is the time for change. My new friend Alejandro Cortez Venegas said “Good morning chairman and members, my name is Alejandro Cortez on the behalf the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and we are in strong support. I would like to add by urging you members to do the right thing. By keeping overtime protections from Farmworkers is depriving them of basic human rights, and it’s inhumane. Caesar Chavez once said, “the fight is never about grapes or lettuce, it is always about people.” Therefore members, I urge to the right thing and support this bill.” For my part, when given the turn to speak I said “My name is Sean Raycraft, and I’m a grocery clerk. I have the luxury of 8 hour day overtime protections. As soon as that farm worker puts that produce on to a truck, every worker who touches that produce has overtime protections. The truck drivers, the warehouse workers and clerks like me all get overtime protections. I’m asking you committee members to extend those same protections to the workers who work outside in the hot sun. Thank you.”
The groups who came to the committee meeting were predictable. The Western Growers Association (who are responsible for sending Yolo county voters mailer after mailer during election season). The Chamber of Commerce, and various trade associations. Invariably, these lobbyists, wearing $5000 suits, nice shoes and luxury watches testified about their concern for their workers jobs and working conditions, and how “these burdensome regulations will put small farmers out of business” all without a hint of irony. They are the same talking points the big business community uses any time anyone proposes legislation that works for regular people. Lorena Gonzalez summed it up well when she said “This exemption in the labor code is effectively a giant subsidy for Big Ag, paid for by the sweat of immigrant labor.”
The bill ended up advancing to the state senate floor, on a party line 4-1 vote, with Vice Chair Stone in opposition. I reached out to local elected officials and candidates to get their thoughts on this matter. Former assembly member and state senate candidate Mariko Yamada said “”The fundamental question is this: should the 1941 exemption from overtime for farmworkers be removed? I answered ‘Yes’ four years ago, when I voted for AB 1313 (Allen) on the Assembly Floor. Seventy-five years seems long enough for these workers to wait for equal treatment.” Assembly member Bill Dodd has not responded directly to multiple inquiries on this subject, but has made private comments to members of the labor community that he will vote no when this bill comes back to the assembly floor, citing cost increases for local dairy farms. Winters Mayor and Assembly District 4 candidate Cecilia Aguiar-Curry provided the following position statement when asked: “Its important that people understand the Ag sector. Farming demands unique requirements. I have concerns about redefining the current overtime provisions in the labor code on the heels of the new 15$ minimum wage requirement which phases in by 2020. I think it is prudent to take a go slow approach in order to assess the financial impacts on farmers and consumers before adding additional costs to production agriculture. I am open to changing the overtime rules in the future AFTER the effects of increased labor costs due to the new minimum wage are better understood.”
The state legislature will have an opportunity to right a historic wrong in the coming weeks. Northern California Democrat Assembly members Bill Dodd, Ken Cooley, and Jim Cooper, Evan Low, Jim Wood, Jim Frazier, and Susan Eggman are likely going to get a second chance. They all voted no on AB 2757 or failed to vote on the measure. It failed to advance, 38-35. 80 percent of farm workers are immigrants, and they are overwhelmingly from Central America. It would be negligent to ignore the institutional racism the overtime exemptions current labor law allows for. Today, it will be over 100 degrees again in the valley, and there will be thousands of farm workers laboring in that heat without the protections of an 8 hour day, or a seventh day of rest. I handle food every day at my job. It can be laborious and difficult, but it isn’t farm work, and I get those protections. It’s only fair that the state give those same protections to the people whose labor feeds the world. Lets hope our leaders have the moral courage to do what is right in the coming weeks and months to come. If not, lets remember who sides with working families in November.
Sean Raycraft is a lifelong Davis resident and proud shop steward at UFCW 8