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California farmworkers can now get overtime pay after 8 hours. Some workers, growers aren’t happy with the change

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Madi Bolanos
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Erasmo Venegas and Lourdes Cardenas stand outside their home in Fresno on January 4, 2022. They've worked in the fields in the San Joaquin Valley for over 20 years.

Lourdes Cardenas has worked in the fields in the San Joaquin Valley for two decades. In the past, she says, she would sometimes work up to 10 hours a day without getting paid overtime. Sometimes that meant having to pay babysitters for the extra time she spent in the fields.

And after that, we did not have enough to pay rent or buy groceries ” she says in Spanish.

In 2016, Cardenas volunteered with the United Farmworker Foundation to advocate for overtime for farmworkers. She says she helped gather signatures from fellow workers and marched at the State Capitol. At that point, farmworkers would only get additional pay after working 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week.

Later that year, former Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation requiring farmers to gradually pay their employees time and a half after 8-hour days or 40-hour weeks. The law takes full effect this year for farmers who have more than 26 employees.

Cardenas says she’s relieved. She says the overtime pay will help her deal with rising rent and gas costs.

“We are workers like everyone else but weren’t valued like the others until now,” she says.

Eriberto Fernandez, government affairs director for the United Farmworker Foundation, says farmworkers have been excluded from overtime benefits since the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

“Back then agricultural workers were mostly African American workers and they were excluded from the New Deal,” he says. “It's now Mexican American farmworkers that are mostly picking our fruits and vegetables and the same rule continued. This injustice continued.”

He says it’s taken 80 years to expand these benefits to farmworkers.

“It's a very historic and momentous occasion for farmworkers that they now, for the first time in the history of agricultural labor, they have the same rights as all other Californians do,” he says.

And he says farmworkers will be able to spend more time with their families. They’ll also be paid if they do have to work more than 8 hours.

But some growers aren’t happy with this change.

Ryan Jacobsen, with the Fresno County Farm Bureau, says the former 60-hour work week gave farmers more flexibility. That was helpful when there were rainy days or extreme heat.

“Up until the passage of this bill, there was an understanding that these employees would be able to make up these hours during these shorter windows,” he says.

In addition to the overtime wages, growers are required to pay their workers minimum wage, which is now $15 an hour in California. Jacobsen says due to these changes, farmers will limit workers’ shifts to 8 hours.

Farmers are also making other adaptations. Daniel Hartwig is a fourth-generation farmer who grows almonds, grapes, and garlic in Fresno County. He says farmers in Fresno County are moving toward less labor-intensive crops like nuts. And he says these new laws are one reason why.

“Growing an orchard takes a lot less labor than if I was to grow tree fruit or things like that,” says Hartwig, who is also the president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. “Because I don't have that same labor impact on a crop because it's a lot more mechanized.”

He says changing crops isn’t easy because it costs tens of thousands of dollars. But on his own farm, he’s already begun to decrease his production of grapes.

“And they're probably going to be replaced with pistachios.”

Back at Lourdes Cardenas’ house in Fresno, her partner Erasmo Venegas is just coming home from a day in the fields trimming almond and pistachio trees. He says he’s worried about these new changes. He used to work six days a week, but he says now his employer isn’t allowing it.

“It's bad,” he says in Spanish. “They’re only giving us 40 hours and it’s just not sufficient.”

He says he might take on a second job on Saturdays to make up for the lost income.

But Lourdes Cardenas is optimistic. She says they’ll need to work overtime when the harvest comes and growers need people to pick their citrus fruit.

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.