New Overtime Bill is Boost for Farmworkers and Opportunity to Do More

Earlier this year, California passed legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour for all workers, including farmworkers. As farmworkers wait for this to go into full effect, there is news that they may get a more immediate bump in pay through changed overtime rules. Legislation requiring farms to pay overtime after 8 hours a day and 40 hours a week has been approved by legislatures and is waiting on California Governor Jerry Brown’s desk for final approval.

So much of the dialogue and media reporting of this news has pitted farmers and farmworkers against each other, asking whether farmers can afford this, decrying the injustice to farmers who are at the mercy of weather and seasons and rely on farmworkers’ flexibility to work more at certain times of year. The reporting even questions whether the change is good for farmworkers or whether net incomes will fall as farmers cap workers’ hours.

But as with the minimum wage debate itself, if we are asking a question that might have the answer, “Let’s keep farmworker wages low,” then we aren’t asking the right questions.

Yes, farm work is different from factory work. So is managerial work and the U.S. Department of Labor recently raised the salary under which managers must be paid overtime to $47,476, a salary most farmworkers could only dream of. Farm work is difficult work and workers who push on in the fields more than 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week get tired and increase risk of injury.

A broken food system that favors cheap food, subsidizes large-scale commodity crops, promotes climate-killing industrial agriculture, and denies farmers fair payment is not an excuse to treat farmworkers poorly. We need collectively to agree that farmworkers deserve a fair pay and go from there.

Instead of asking whether farmers are hoping for this new overtime bill to pass, let’s start asking how to address the whole food system so that farmworkers and farmers and consumers all get what they need. Many farmers want to pay farmworkers fairly but are legitimately concerned about their own ability to be sustainable. How can we shift public investments away from industrial agriculture and direct it to sustainable farmers and providing decent jobs for farmworkers on those farms?

If this bill passes, it will provide a needed boost to farmworker pay and signal that their work in the fields is valuable. Let’s make sure it’s also an opportunity to assess our whole food system and start to figure out how to make it work for farmers as well as farmworkers, not just in California, but throughout the global economy.

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