“When I was a young boy, my father would take me out to the fields and say, ‘Te voy a llevar a los campos para enseñarte este tipo de trabajo, y como hacerlo bien y que seas siempre el mejor.” He never told me: ‘Te voy a llevar a los campos para que nunca hagas este tipo de trabajo porque no es bueno.”
That is one of the most memorable quotes Central Valley grower, Joe Del Bosque received as a little boy from his late father who was a farmworker.
For him, tending the soil, planting the seeds and harvesting the fruits and vegetables in the land that is considered the bread basket of the world was an acquired and useful skill— something enjoyable that could be passed on from one generation to the next.
Last week when Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1066 authored by Assemblywoman Lorena González, D-San Diego, which would grant overtime pay for farm workers who work more than eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week, Del Bosque was disheartened.
And it wasn’t because of the impact it may have on his farm operations, but rather, the impact it would have on his 300 employees – many of them who have been working decades with him on his farm, whom already get paid more than the minimum wage and who return each year from out-of-state and México, eager to work with ‘El Patron.’
To him, his employees are not workers, they are family.
“I wanted to talk to Gov. Brown about what this bill truly means to farm workers because I would bring in an entirely different perspective compared to most people who work in agriculture and certainly, a different life experience from most growers,” said Del Bosque.
Del Bosque is one of a handful of Mexican-American growers in the Central Valley, operating Empresas Del Bosque in westside Fresno County. He harvests everything from organic cantaloupes to asparagus on a little more than 3,000 acres of land.
A few years ago, President Barack Obama and Brown visited his farm to see the impact of California’s drought.
His wife Gloria was a farmworker. He was a farmworker. He comes from a line of ancestors who were all farm workers. The bill AB 1066, he said, is one constructed with good intentions, but failed to consider the voices of thousands of farm workers from across the state.
“Their biggest worry is that their hours will be cut back which is something many growers might do in order to save on costs and farm workers truly don’t want that. My employees don’t want me to cut their hours. They want to be able to work as many hours as possible to earn enough money to be able to provide for their families,” said Del Bosque.
“I feel that our lawmakers based much of their reasoning on this bill on a concept rather than spending time hearing the voices of so many farm workers,” said Del Bosque.
And that concept is two-fold.
Proponents of AB 1066 argued that passage of the legislation was correcting a 78-year-old Jim Crow-era law that discriminated against farm workers by denying them the same overtime rights and protections that other workers in the state already enjoy.
Many lawmakers who voted for the bill, especially Democrats in the State Legislature, spoke about their personal connections to farm work. Some had grandparents who came to the United States from México during the Bracero Program. Others had parents who worked in the fields. Some said they too had toiled in the fields during summer and winter breaks while they were in college.
In sum, their experiences were not good. They were exploited, mistreated, abused, or taken for granted.
Many proponents of the bill provided their personal testimonials – experiences on how difficult it was to earn a dollar, the harsh conditions they faced as former farm workers, and the long hours they had to work to make a decent living.
It cannot be dismissed that agricultural work is difficult, exhausting and far too many times dangerous, but as Del Bosque puts it, farm workers are, “people who are willing and able to do this kind of work and it’s not because it’s the only thing they know how to do, it’s because they know how to do it well and they enjoy it.”
And he reiterates, it is a common sentiment shared among many of today’s farm workers that couldn’t be expressed because their voices were shut out of the debate.
“Many of my employees come from Arizona and Mexico where they earn $4 dollars in a day. They come to California and they like how much they get paid, they work hard and they want to give it all they got during the harvest season, particularly in the summer because they return in the winter. There is no work for them in the winter months,” said Del Bosque.
There are many misconceptions about farm work, he said.
Putting labels on farm workers like “exploited” takes away from their own experiences, especially if they are not negative. For too many years, farm work has been viewed as negative, undesirable and an industry no one should consider working in. Given the long history and plight of farm workers and their employment challenges in the Golden State, it would be difficult to undermine this fact.
It is also one of the reasons many lawmakers voted for the bill, said Del Bosque. But there is a disconnect between the generations— those who were Braceros, those whose parents were farm workers and the lawmakers theymselves who worked in the fields, if at all.
“Those lawmakers who voted so passionately for the bill forget that it was the hard work of their parents that provided them with the opportunity to be where they are. However, they are very much disconnected from the reality of farm work and farm workers today,” said Del Bosque.
When González and Assemblyman Joaquín Arambula, D-Fresno, championed the bill, Del Bosque extended an invitation to both lawmakers to his farm. They both agreed to visit, but never showed up.
“I wanted them to talk directly to the farmworkers; that’s it,” said Del Bosque.
California, which is the largest agricultural state in the nation, has the best agricultural protections for farm workers.
The United Farm Workers, who sponsored AB 1066 and lobbied heavily around the state Capitol weeks before the Assembly would take the bill up for a vote, urged lawmakers for its passage.
It has also been the UFW who has achieved the most historic gains for farm workers in the last several decades including collective bargaining agreements between farm workers and growers, union contracts requiring rest periods, toilets in the fields, clean drinking water, hand washing facilities, protective clothing, health benefits, retirement and pension plans, including access to a credit union.
The UFW is also heavily credited for abolishing the infamous short handled hoe that crippled generations of farmworkers.
UFW President Arturo Rodríguez was happy to see the bill passed with a 44-32 vote in the Assembly.
“Farmworkers have sacrificed and lead this fight. We thank the author Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and legislators who stood up and to the countless activists and civic organizations whose work with the United Farm Workers was instrumental to making this groundbreaking legislation the law of the land in the largest agriculture state in the nation,” said Rodriguez.
Ironically, passage of AB 1066 does not affect UFW members.
In the State of California, a union member is not protected by overtime laws because of language included in their collective bargaining agreement. If the agreement establishes a minimum wage for workers at the company where they are employed and is at least 30 percent more than the legal minimum wage, they are exempt from overtime laws.
As of Jan. 1, 2008, minimum wage in California is $8 per hour. If a union member is paid $10.40 or more per hour (as of Jan. 1, 2008), overtime laws do not apply.
There are over 800,000 farmworkers in California who will be affected by this new law and the UFW only represents between 2-3 percent. There are many voices, said Del Bosque, who weren’t heard.
In a letter addressed to Brown, he expressed his concerns.
“I write to you today, not as a farmer, but as an employer and friend of farm workers. Today, my wife and I employ over 300 workers, many that have worked for us for decades. AB 1066 changes the lives of many of our farm workers,” he wrote.
“The promise of overtime after working 40 hours is certainly appreciated by all. My concern that is shared by my employees is that the reaction of agriculture will be to reduce hours to adopt a 40 hour week, just like the rest of the economy has.”
In California today, agricultural workers already receive some overtime pay if they work more than 10 hours in a day or more than 60 hours in a week.
AB 1066 would expand that by offering time-and-a-half pay for working more than eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week and double pay for working more than 12 hours a day. The pay boosts would be done incrementally over the next four years beginning in 2019 and the governor would have the authority to suspend them for a year if the economy slumps.
The law won’t affect all farm workers in the state like those who work on piece-rate basis, and earn a fixed rate for a specific amount. Usually, farm workers who only work piece-rate do not work more than 40 hours in a week.
Bruce Blodgett, executive director of the San Joaquín Farm Bureau Federation, said the law could mean $300 less a week for farm workers.
“The people it harms the most is the actual workers by having their hours cut. It will also hurt consumers because many farmers will reevaluate what they’re growing and make choices to reduce labor costs,” he said.
Luis Magaña, a farm labor activist and member of the American Friends Service Committee, championed the legislation saying it was “one more step toward the rights of farm workers- the equality of workers. It’s a law that should have been in existence. Laborers work many hours, and they do so in the heat of summer or rain,” he said.
Guadalupe Sandoval, who is the Managing Director at California Farm Labor Contractors Association in Sacramento said the bill will create winners and losers.
“Some farmworkers will eventually see their hours reduced. In the future, some agricultural workers will have higher base wages, plus some premium pay for work over eight hours in a day. I think we’ll see more machines in the fields, and fewer acres of labor-intensive crops, and more nut trees being planted,” said Sandoval.
Del Bosque said he may eventually have to make some changes to his operations and his workers are not going to be happy.
“I’ve already had to make tough decisions to let some of my lands go fallow because of the drought and now I may have to go find workers in Arizona to come to California to harvest my melons and my asparagus, but I don’t know – only time will tell,” said Del Bosque.