Hard-won overtime pay for farm workers faces pushback from growers

Farm labor was excluded from the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. Farm workers have won the right to OT in some states, but growers have just cut their hours. A nationwide fix is needed.

Toiling from dawn to dusk, farm workers bring in the harvest. These strawberry pickers do a back-breaking job. PHOTO: Lance Cheung / USDA
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Farm workers are at the beginning of the food supply chain, about as essential as you can get. Yet they have been excluded from basic worker protections. The Fair Labor Standards Act excluded farm, domestic, and tipped labor to win Southern legislators’ votes for passage.

They demanded that these jobs done primarily by African Americans in the South stay unprotected and underpaid.

A long time coming

Minimum wage coverage came in the 1960s, but it took until the new century for changes in overtime protection to gain ground. Even so, they were enacted piecemeal, state by state. Only eight states have any such laws. And of course, piece work, paid by the quantity picked, isn’t covered.

Most statutes initially required many hours before overtime was paid, and gradual phase-in over years until getting down to 40 hours a week. Frequently, small growers are exempt or given years longer to comply. Often a certain number of weeks every year are excluded or given more hours before overtime applies.

California passed a farm worker overtime law in 2016. It started by only covering large employers and over 55 hours weekly, and won’t apply to small growers and work over 40 hours until 2025. New York state passed its law in 2019, but initially only for work over 60 hours, not dropping to 40 hours and covering everyone until 2032!

Farm worker overtime laws passed in 2021 in Washington and 2022 in Oregon. On the federal level, the Fairness for Farm Workers Act was introduced in Congress in 2018. It is reintroduced yearly, but has never passed.

Under fire

This long overdue reform is already being fought by the farm industry through exclusions to the laws during peak harvest periods, and by growers switching to less labor intensive crops.

Many laborers are having their hours cut to no more than 40 so employers can avoid paying overtime. When growers do this, workers lose up to one-third of their pay. Under the capitalist market system, any reform becomes a double-edged sword. This is how capitalism works!

Yolanda Alaniz, co-author of Viva La Raza: A History of Chicano Identity and Resistance, observes: “As a former farm worker, I know what it is to do backbreaking work from sunrise to sunset. It’s a victory that employers must pay overtime. But the bosses never give something for nothing. They will speed up the work, raise quotas, or cut hours. This is why workers need strong unions to stand up to the bosses.”

Reforms are essential. Government could mandate solutions without raising food prices. New York gives a tax credit to farmers for their overtime payments. Guest worker rights also need protection, so they are not pitted against resident workers. Ultimately, national legislation is needed to defend all farm workers and standardize the law.

Agricultural workers need to be paid enough that they don’t have to work six days a week 10 or 12 hours a day in all kinds of weather just to make a meager living. Knowing the enemy and organizing like hell are the cure.

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