José Mendoza came to the United States when he was 35-years-old. He left his native poverty-stricken small village in Santa María, Oaxaca, México to work in the San Joaquín Valley’s abundant fields.
For 25 years he labored as a farmworker, picking cotton, tomatoes, grapes – and packing garlic, oranges and various other fruits and vegetables.
Although Mendoza is now 76 years old and past his retirement age, the wages that were provided to him as a farm worker –— and most farm workers in California – are simply not enough, he said.
“As you get older, you get tired and it’s hard to do this type of work because it’s not easy and you have to work a lot to earn enough money to just survive and pay your bills. When I slowed down a few years ago, I lost my home because I could no longer pay for it,” said Mendoza.
When Mendoza first came to the United States, he waited a few years to bring his wife to California. When she arrived, a series of health complications ensued and a diagnosis of diabetes from a doctor would eventually end her life.
Farm work, he said was unable to provide sufficient wages for him to pay her medical bills.
“This is the only job I know how to do and it is the only job most people who come from where I come from know how to do. So we hope that it will provide us with a good living in the United States,” he said.
Being a farm worker came with many challenges, mostly from contractors who withheld his wages, time and time again. Once, he was the victim of wage theft and said, he has worked more than his fair share of hours just to earn a decent pay check. That is why he wants these conditions to change for current farm workers and others who plan to do this kind of work in the future.
“I believe that farm labor is one of the most difficult jobs. We shouldn’t have to be fighting for every penny. We should get paid what we deserve,” said Mendoza.
Last week, Mendoza and dozens of other farm workers from throughout the Central Valley and Sacramento participated in a 24-hour fast in support of a bill that would provide overtime pay for farm workers in the next four years.
On the north steps of the State Capitol, Catholic clergy, members of the UFW and California lawmakers gathered on Tuesday morning to start the fasting period. Many of them recounted their personal experiences as farm workers and their extended families’ ties to farm labor.
“This bill is important to me because my father came to this country and worked as a farm worker. My grandfather was part of the Bracero program. Every time I meet somebody who helps feed my children and allows me to put food on my table, I see the faces of those who pick our fruits and vegetables,” said Assemblywoman Lorena González, D-San Diego.
González is the author of AB 1066, a bill that would phase in farmworker overtime starting in 2019. The bill, if passed, would lower the current 10-hour day to the standard 8-hour day and establish for the first time, a 40-hour standard work week over the next four years.
A similar bill to secure overtime for farm workers after eight hours of work died on the floor of the Assembly in June because it fell three votes shy of passage, while eight Democrats voted against it and seven abstained.
González was shocked by the lack of support.
“For me, it was personally devastating that we didn’t get enough votes. I really thought my colleagues, who express and share similar values just didn’t vote for it. For me, it is a fundamental piece of legislation and is so important to my core and the type of work that I do and that I believe in,” said González.
The newly introduced AB 1066, she said, is about equality.
“These are workers who are equal to every other worker in the state of California — equal in every sense, except they don’t get paid overtime for their work,” said González.
So far, AB 1066 has passed the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee. On Monday, state Senate President pro Tem Kevin De León introduced the bill on the Senate floor.
“I think it’s a big deal when you have someone like the pro Tem tell you that he will personally bring the bill to the floor of the Senate. That is a good sign, I think...I hope,” said González.
For more than an hour, state Senators took to the floor to express their support; others, their opposition. The bill eventually passed with a 21-14 vote and is now headed to the Assembly where it faces strong opposition— not just from Republicans, but also a few moderate Democrats.
One of the many grandchildren of the late labor leader and civil rights activist, César E. Chávez participated in the fast and pledged his support for the bill.
“It is the right thing to do. Farm workers wake up every single morning and work in the most miserable of conditions to ensure that each and every one of us has fresh fruits and vegetables on our kitchen table. They are the reason people have food in the United States and across the globe. We cannot ignore that fact and we cannot ignore them,” said Andrés Chávez, a recent graduate from CSU Bakersfield.
Also showing his support was Sacramento City Councilmember Eric Guerra.
Guerra, who was born in Michoacán, México, immigrated with his family to Esparto, a small rural town in Yolo County, and labored in the fields with his siblings and parents harvesting everything from tomatoes to peaches, oranges, and a variety of other agricultural jobs.
Issues surrounding farmworkers strike a very personal chord.
“I went through farm work at a very young age and I was strong and young, but I watched my parents go through it and suffer just to be able to provide the very minimal just to stay afloat,” said Guerra.
Providing overtime pay for farm workers is an issue about equality, he said.
“If you look at every single worker today — how is it fair, for example, that if you work in front of a computer you get overtime pay, but those who work out in the sun, don’t? It doesn’t make sense to me,” said Guerra.
Supporters of the bill include Assembly members Miguel Santiago, D-Los Ángeles, Dr. Joaquín Arámbula, D-Fresno, David Chiu, D-San Francisco, and Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San José. All of them spoke in support of the bill last Wednesday morning, moments before breaking the 24-hour fast for farm workers at the downtown Sacramento Cathedral.
Most believe the bill is more than just a labor issue, but also a social justice issue.
In California, the $54 billion agricultural industry and their lobbying efforts to stop the bill have been strong. Yet, 90 percent of their workforce is Latino and 80 percent are of Mexican heritage.
Guerra is optimistic the bill will have more support this time around.
“When we boast here in Sacramento about it being the ‘farm-to-fork’ capital, we need to stop and think why. Who are those folks who are putting the fresh fruits and veggies on those tables? I can bet they were picked by the hands of a farm worker,” said Guerra.
The bill is scheduled for a vote tomorrow in the Assembly.