Monday, July 12, 2010

Latino legislator seeks to fix bad work policy

Latino Legislator Seeks To Fix Bad Work Policy
Adrian Perez, Publisher, The Perez Factor - July 10, 2010

While Arizona’s political leadership is working toward disenfranchising its relationships with Latinos, California’s political leadership is moving toward strengthening its relationship by sponsoring legislation that will right nearly 70 years of a bad law.  Through Senate Bill (SB) 1121, the state seeks to ensure that farm workers receive overtime pay for work performed beyond 8 hours a day or 40 hours per week.  The proposed law assumes that farm work is equivalent to that performed in other industries.

Carried by State Senator Dean Florez, SB 1121 proposes to delete the portion of the Labor Code that exempts farm workers from receiving overtime pay, a law adopted in 1941.  Specifically, it would allow the inclusion of farm workers in being paid overtime, allow a 30 minute break after 5 hours of work, and an additional 30 minute break after 10 hours of work, unless the employee and the employer agree to waive the second break.  The bill has passed both the state Assembly and state Senate and now awaits Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signature.

“I am hopeful that the Governor’s experience as an immigrant who initially supported himself through manual labor will give him empathy to grasp the importance of this bill to some of California’s hardest workers,” said Florez, who is termed out this fall.

Traditionally, farm workers are comprised primarily of those Latinos who lack language and learned skills to perform other work, and yes, many may be illegal immigrants.  They are currently the only employees in California who are specifically exempt from receiving overtime when they work more than eight hours in a day, although they often labor 12 or more hours a day at harvest time.  Either way, the work performed is usually hazardous and sometimes dangerous, requiring work in hot and sometimes very cold weather with continuous exposure to dirt and pesticides without proper protections. 

These workers are not offered employer provided healthcare and cannot afford to pay for this luxury on their own.  As a result, many seek medical treatment at free clinics or wait until health conditions worsen requiring being seen at hospital emergency rooms. 

In an Employment Development Department’s report entitled “California’s Agricultural Employment,” shows that 48.6 percent of the state’s 400,000 farm workers reported earning less than $35,000 per year and one out of every 8 farm worker families reported an annual income of less than $15,000 per year.  This is clearly disproportionate compared to only 21 percent of all nonagricultural workers reporting an annual salary of less than $35,000 and only one in 20 reporting an income of less than $15,000.

Florez and others who have fought for and supported the rights of California’s agricultural workers, believe Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger may sign the bill.  Especially since those opposing the bill are using the same arguments that exempted farm workers from overtime pay back in 1941.  Including that it may require farmers to switch crews in the middle of a job or perhaps even plowing their crops under, which may be cheaper than paying overtime.

There is no question that California’s farmers have been struggling of late due to a lack of water, lack of employees, and the market slump.  However, many are provided government subsidies or are able to sell their water to offset their losses.

Throughout his career, Florez has successfully fought to improve the safety of farm worker transportation, to implement workplace heat regulations that provide for shade, rest and water, and to protect workers from the hazard of pesticide drift.  He has identified SB 1121 as one of his legislative priorities for his final term in the California State Senate, which ends this year.

Many of us want to thank Senator Florez for championing causes that are important to those less fortunate Latinos whose function is to keep the state’s agricultural industry going.  However, the Governor should sign SB 1121 not to help Florez attain a great legacy, which he already has, but to fix a wrong that was adopted nearly 70 years ago.

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