IMPERIAL COUNTY – A bill proposing new overtime pay requirements for agricultural workers has gone before the California State Senate, yet the proposed law has many in the industry concerned about sustainability.
California Assembly Bill AB-1066 specifies new overtime requirements for agricultural workers to be phased in by the year 2022. This amended bill would repeal the current overtime wage in California for agricultural workers, which pays overtime after 10 hours of work in a day and 60 hours in a week, and incrementally implements the new overtime wage law, which requires overtime pay after eight hours in one day or 40 hours in a week.
However, this new bill is a concern for those in agriculture because of fear of losing jobs to other states and countries. Jesse Larios, manager of Foster Feed Yard in Brawley, voiced his worry about not being able to compete with Mexico or Arizona if the bill is successful. Larios noted that while importing food might be more affordable, it might have devastating effects on the quality and consistency of what Americans eat.
“[President John] Kennedy said, ‘A nation is only as strong as it could feed itself.’ If we start putting our food in foreign countries hands, we’re really putting our security at risk,” Larios commented. “We preach about food safety and how America has the safest food supply. And now we’re going to put our food supply in another country’s hand? And the U.S. has nothing the do with their food safety or how it’s grown? To me, that’s very scary. I always say, I wouldn’t put anything on your table that I wouldn’t put on my family’s.”
In addition to the impact of food quality, livestock welfare would also be detrimentally affected by the new bill. While most industries become faster-paced to remain efficient in wage hikes, mimicking such efficiency methods with live animals is not a realistic option.
“Slow is fast, take your time, do things right, don’t stress the animal,” said Larios. “We have really focused a lot on beef quality assurance. Now, we are saying we are going to make it where you are at a disadvantage and you are going to have to accomplish in eight hours what you used to do in ten hours. We are putting our animal welfare at risk.”
Working with livestock is a particularly specialized industry, where employees who have a keen eye to monitor cattle health and behavior can be a rare find. Larios said he needs workers who can identify issues before the animal is even sick—not a skill found readily at the local employment center. Training new employees to read cattle and detect issues is an investment that often takes years. At $10 an hour, it’s financially easier for Larios to allocate for a training budget, so that new employees can have an understanding of livestock science and behavior. Most of his cowboys and feed truck drivers make above $15 an hour, due to their training and specialized skills.
Larios is often asked why construction workers who build houses in the Imperial Valley get overtime after 40 hours, while agriculture workers don’t. His answer: the difference is when the construction worker puts their hammer down and goes away for the weekend, nothing happens to the house, wood, or nails.
In agriculture, if caretakers of plants, soil, or livestock went away for the weekend, the crop or animals could be dead by Monday.
The market also differs significantly with agricultural and non-agricultural industries. Larios uses the same analogy to explain. If the house which the construction worker built doesn’t sell immediately, the delay costs very little since the house may be sold at a similar price months later. In agriculture, whenever the lettuce crop is ripe, it needs to be picked and sold immediately.
“You can’t just say, ‘Oh we’ll come back on Monday to harvest the crop.’ No. Your lettuce over-matures and you just lost the crop. In livestock, we can’t just say if that pen of cattle doesn’t sell, we’ll sell it next week or month. When animals are market ready, they are market ready. Just like when crops are ready to harvest, they are ready to harvest. We are price takers, we can’t just tell the market, ‘No, I don’t like your price, I’ll just hold on to it,’” said Larios.
“Our products are perishable; they spoil, they rot.”
Larios suspects that the only way to survive the new regulations is to become a factory farmer. Over 95% of all farms in the United States are owned by families; however, most won’t be able to afford the new minimum wage hikes and overtime hours. The trend of mechanizations in industries to become more efficient will soon replace harvesters in the fields. However, the machine won’t be able to pick and choose the ripe lettuce like a person would. The machine would cut it, shred it, and put it in a bag. Food will become more processed and of poorer quality in order to cut costs.
“We need to have a discussion. I’m not saying to have a discussion on wages or overtime, but the discussion needs to start on where we need to be 50 years from now with agriculture in California, because California is the breadbasket of the world,” commented Larios. “We need to change how we look at urban America vs. rural America. Agriculture is the biggest contributor to our economy, so why aren’t we listening to agriculture?”
Larios lamented that while the debate is raging among those directly involved, many people outside of the agricultural industry seem to miss how they also will be affected.
“Unfortunately, we all share one common thing in California, regardless of where you work. We all eat. There’s a saying, ‘If you ate today, you’re involved in agriculture.’ I will add to that, ‘If you ate today, you should be concerned about your food supply.’”