How California’s newly expanded agriculture overtime impacts Wine Country farmworkers, growers
With the new year ushering in an expansion of the agriculture worker overtime pay law, Sonoma County farmworker Jessica Gallardo hopes it won’t usher her out of her Santa Rosa home.
Gallardo, 33, has noticed that since agriculture companies with 25-plus employees were required last year to provide overtime, she’s been getting fewer hours in Healdsburg vineyards. She declined to name the employer. Companies are required to pay overtime for a day’s work over nine hours or 50 hours in a workweek. A 12-hour workday warrants double time. Starting Jan. 1, firms with fewer than 25 workers came under the rule.
“Lots of us farmworkers in the community are seeing bosses would rather bring in additional workers than pay overtime. We’re told to only work 40 hours and not to go over because they can’t pay overtime,” she said. “My family — because of the cost — has to start to think about moving to some place like Fresno or even Florida. We’re not paid enough to live here.”
California Assembly Bill 1066, called the Agricultural Workers Act of 2016, was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016, overtime was given after 60 hours a week were completed.
The exclusion of overtime for farmworkers dates back to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
During wine grape harvests, farmworkers like Gallardo are paid by the weight or quantity of grapes picked under contract, instead of hourly like other times of the year. In 2021, the average rate of pay for vineyard employees in Sonoma County was $19.87 per hour — $3.13 more than four years ago, according to Sonoma County Winegrowers President Karissa Kruse.
Because of that “piece rate” payment: “Wages for vineyard employees in Sonoma County during harvest can be as high as $30 to $40 per hour,” she said.
Still, the sporadic nature of a farmworkers’ wage makes it difficult to get by, according to Max Bell Alper, executive director of North Bay Jobs With Justice, a pro-labor advocacy group.
“The real issue is it’s harder to make ends meet for farmworkers all over California — but especially in the North Bay,” Bell Alper said. He singled out housing as one big expense that dominates a household budget. Neither Gallardo nor Bell Alper blame the law for the resulting reduction of hours.
“We would challenge any winery or vineyard owner to live on $19 an hour in Sonoma County, and then tell us if it is enough,” he said.
Are both ends of the spectrum facing issues for different reasons?
Some farmers would agree with Gallardo, if only to say it’s a hardship on them as well.
“In the long run, this makes it harder to pay people. These farms can’t afford to pay time and a half. It only means the workers are not getting as many hours,” said Bryan Little, a state labor policy analyst who’s the chief operating officer for Farm Employers Labor Force, a trade group.
Little fears the new requirements will end up “driving up” the prices of ag products to consumers already feeling the impact of inflation.
“This is going to be an issue. The farmers are going to look at how to get around it,” Solano County Farm Bureau Manager Lisa Shipley said.
But to at least one Sonoma County farmer, it’s a human issue.
“I’ve been paying time and half after 8 hours and 40 hours (in a workweek) for 20 years, and I’m proud of that,” said Ridgely Evers, owner of Davero Farms and Winery in Healdsburg.
That level of pay will be mandated in 2025 for the phased-in law.
“We learned this in kindergarten,” he said of how to treat workers. “And people tend to stay a longer time when they are (treated well).”
Farmworker rights represent an ongoing battleground in California, with Cesar Chavez initiating the founding of the UFW in the Central Valley in the 1960s. The civil rights movement organized thousands of workers demanding better wages and working conditions.
Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 27 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. Reach Wood at 530-545-8662 or email@example.com.