Though there have been some recent policy changes to protect California’s agricultural workers, there is still more work to be done to ensure this essential workforce is given the same labor protections as other industries.
A 2015 survey of agricultural workers in Ventura County conducted by the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) found that some farmworkers did not receive overtime pay, were provided with inadequate breaks, and were working despite being injured. Moreover, the report showed that farmworkers experienced wage theft and paycheck discrepancies. The story of “Juan” highlights the magnitude and prevalence of wage theft:
“There are days when we get off work at 1 pm and we have to stay and wait for our check until 3 pm and although we are off work we are put to clean … They don’t pay us for those two extra hours. If we don’t stay then we can’t pick up our check until next Monday.”
Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938, agricultural workers were excluded from wage protections and overtime compensation requirements that were in place for workers in other industries. This meant that farms were not required to pay overtime to workers until they worked over 10 hours in a workday or 60 hours a week, unlike other industries where overtime is paid after 8 hours or 40 hours a week. In 2016, advocates like CAUSE supported the passage and signing of AB-1066, a bill changing California law to include agricultural workers in existing law that implements protections for working hours, standard meal periods, and a timetable to phase these workers into overtime pay, similar to workers in other industries. As a result of AB-1066, California became the first state to require overtime be paid to farm workers who work beyond an 8-hour day.
This recent policy change was a win in the fight toward addressing worker exploitation. However, the recent increase in wildfires across the state combined with the COVID-19 pandemic made clear that there is an urgent need for ongoing policies that protect farmworkers. The COVID-19 pandemic drastically affected vulnerable communities, including immigrant farmworkers who are considered essential workers and could not shelter-in-place to protect themselves from workplace exposure to the virus in the early months of the pandemic. Many farmworkers in the Central Coast are undocumented immigrants, and therefore were ineligible to receive the federal COVID-19 relief stimulus checks. Although California created a fund for stimulus-excluded immigrants, the fund only covered roughly one in four of the state’s undocumented workforce. Thus, farmworkers have had to endure the double burden of protecting themselves against COVID-19 at work by masking—as most do not have the support to afford taking time off—while also struggling to breathe under extreme heat caused by wildfires. CAUSE helped create the 805 Undocufund alongside other nonprofit organizations in order to provide relief money to undocumented immigrants in the Central Coast who were ineligible to receive the stimulus. To learn more about the issues farmworkers face in the workplace read CAUSE’s full report here. To learn more about AB-1066 read an article from Capital Public Radio here and read the bill here.
Photo credit: Andrew Nixon, Capital Public Radio