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Valley farmworkers say they’re feeling California’s overtime law impacts – both good and bad
turlock farmworker 1
A farmworker in Turlock finishes out her day of picking yams before enjoying a free lunch provided by a local radio station. Nonprofit organizations such as Cultiva Central Valley attend these events to raffle items for the workers as well as provide them with information about conserving water or staying safe in extreme heat.

Under the sweltering sun of California’s Central Valley, farmworkers toil from dawn until dusk, harvesting crops that feed millions of people globally. 

Despite their hard work, farmworkers have long been excluded from overtime protections that other workers have enjoyed for decades under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Recent legislative changes in California aimed to address this disparity, promising more equitable compensation. 

However, farmworkers and ranchers say these changes have significantly affected them, both positively and negatively. While some workers are benefiting from higher wages, others say they’re now working fewer hours under the new rules. 

On a hot June afternoon, a group of farmworkers in Turlock, including Alma Sanchez and Hilda Villagomez, rested on shaded benches after a long day of picking yams. 

The group of about 81 workers was done for the day and enjoyed a lunch they won from local radio station Radio Lobo.

The women, ranging in age from early 20s to late 40s, were sitting around enjoying cold beverages with other coworkers before heading home for the day accompanied by Gilberto Leon, their boss. 

“Yo ando igual que ellos, viviendo dia a dia – I’m in the same boat as them living day by day,” said Leon in Spanish. “I’m always borrowing money just to keep going.”

Leon is a rancher who plants on 500 acres of land. He started his career in the industry by toiling in the fields. In 1995, a rancher gave him the opportunity to plant five acres, leading him to become his own boss.

Overtime protection law passed in California

Assembly Bill 1066, introduced by then-Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, was passed into law in 2016.

This law, phased in over six years, provided time-and-a-half pay for farmworkers working more than eight hours a day or 40 hours per week, plus double pay for those working more than 12 hours a day. 

In the past, agricultural laborers needed to work over 60 hours per week or more than 10 hours a day before being eligible for overtime pay.

By 2022, the law was fully implemented, marking a historic expansion of overtime pay rules for farmworkers.

Ranchers’ and farmworkers’ reactions to the law

Leon said he was affected by the overtime change and had to make adjustments during the two busiest times – planting and harvesting – to continue operating.

“When it’s harvest time, we have to pay overtime, which affects the profits,” said Leon. “When we were planting, we had to use more machinery to get the job done.”

Sanchez mentioned that some farmworkers coordinate with ranchers to work past the 40 hours at regular pay, which benefits both the rancher and the worker.

“Many of us agree to get paid in cash with some ranchers,” she said. “We need to work like that. We are not benefiting from only working 40 hours.”

Leon said he did not use that practice because it would take just one person to complain and could cost him more in fines. 

Villagomez added that the rent price in the area significantly affected them, especially with the reduced hours worked.

“Merced used to be the place with the most affordable rent, but that’s not the case anymore,” she said. “They’re telling us rent is increasing because of the airport, the mall and the university. All things that most of us probably don’t use.”

Highly-skilled workers affected by law

Jarquin, a 39-year-old farmworker from Merced who only wanted to use his surname, spoke with The Merced FOCUS about his experience in the fields.

At 15, he began farm work, and as he got older, he became a trusted and highly skilled employee. 

His expertise in operating heavy machinery and assisting with crop maintenance – tasks that require fewer workers – allowed him to continue working beyond 10 hours a day and earn more overtime wages than before the law’s passage.

“Las personas que estaban en las cuadrillas se vieron más afectadas- the working crews were the most affected” he said in Spanish. “I could work more hours and weekends due to what I knew how to do. My coworkers were only working 40 hours a week Monday-Friday.”

The law went into effect in January 2016, a time when work was slow and overtime was not needed much.

Jarquin said the law’s effects were not truly felt until later when workers who used to work about 60 hours a week started to see their hours reduced.

“We all thought we were going to continue working 10 hours a day and getting two hours of overtime,” he said. “That wasn’t the case. A lot of workers felt the difference in income.”

Academic research shows impacts

recently published study by the UC Merced Community and Labor Center revealed significant shifts in California farmworkers’ earnings and hours following the implementation of AB 1066. 

From 2017 to 2022, the study documented an increase in average annual earnings from $18,872 to $24,871 as hours worked decreased gradually from 42.7 hours per week to 39.6 hours per week by 2022.

From 2017 to 2019, farmworkers labored an average of 42.7 hours per week. 

The study noted, “Following the COVID-19 pandemic and several major disasters — such as drought, fires, and floods — that figure decreased. In 2020, California farmworkers averaged 41.3 hours worked per week; in 2021, they averaged 40.5 hours per week, and by 2022, they averaged 39.6 hours per week.”

Rodrigo Alatriste-Diaz, a research specialist involved in the study, said the law positively impacted farmworkers’ earnings.

“There’s a consistent trend in the annual earnings for workers,” he said. “Employers are paying an additional cost to keep them working, indicating a substantial change in compensation practices.”

However, other factors, such as increases in workers’ regular wages during this time, also took place, making the study preliminary, added Alatriste-Diaz.

Future research will include other factors, such as inflation and wage increases in different industries, said Alatriste-Diaz.

study by Alexandra E. Hill,  assistant professor of cooperative extension at UC Berkeley, which used a different data set, found that employers decreased workers’ hours to accommodate the law.

“Results indicate that the overtime law decreased worker pay,” the study showed.

About a third of the workforce with higher weekly earnings — between $600 and $800 — decreased by roughly one-third.

“Overall, the law caused 10% fewer workers to earn between $600 and $700 per week and 5% fewer to earn between $700 and $800 a week,” the study showed. 

The reduction in hours led to a significant decrease in earnings for workers working about 10 hours less per week.

“It is possible that despite these outcomes, workers are better off from the law; workers may be happy to accept the lower pay in exchange for fewer working hours and having more leisure time,” the study showed. 

However, the study states that families depending on this lost income to cover living expenses may need other employment opportunities, which can negate the positive effects.

Alatriste-Diaz said the Berkeley study had different data sets, and both studies showed that hours worked decreased while differing in the earnings achieved by workers.

“We’re looking at that data to try to understand differences in results,” he said. “One question would be if it’s an issue of data, or if we were to recreate the Berkeley study (our data), whether that would get us to a closer approximation of what is occurring.”

New overtime proposal discussed this year

Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher, Chico, introduced Assembly Bill 3056  in February after learning of the studies.

The bill proposes a nine-hour workday and a 50-hour workweek before employees are eligible for overtime pay.

Gallagher argued the law currently in effect failed to recognize the distinct nature of farm work, which is characterized by seasons, reliance on nature, and handling decayable products.

The bill was granted reconsideration after failing to pass the Assembly’s Labor and Employment Committee, but it has not moved forward since April. 

“I am committed to striking a balance that ensures fair treatment for agricultural workers while also considering the needs of California’s farmers,” he said in a news release. “This bill aims to address the unintended consequences of AB 1066, safeguarding both worker rights and the vitality of California agriculture.”

Jarquin said that if Gallagher’s bill became law, it would affect workers like himself but benefit others.

“All the guys that work the crews would benefit since they would get an extra hour of work,” he said. “I would be affected since I constantly work 10 hours, so I would lose an hour of overtime every day.”

Leon said he was better off when he worked smaller quantities of farmland. Every year, he’s unsure if he’ll make ends meet with the recent changes in wage laws and the ever-increasing cost of living.

“There have been Christmases when, after picking all the yams, I have been flat broke,” he said. 

“The politicians are going to feel our pain when they stop getting fresh produce on their tables. I keep going, hoping to make it one day.”