California first U.S. state to promise overtime to farmworkers

September 12, 2016 4:23 PM EDT

Farm workers pick squash blossoms in the early morning fog on a farm in Rancho Santa Fe, California, United States August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake

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By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - California will become the first U.S. state to require farmers to pay overtime to field workers and fruit pickers under a bill signed on Monday by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown.

The bill would phase in overtime pay for farmworkers from 2019 to 2022. In an industry where a work week during the harvest season can be as long as 60 hours, the measure requires farmers to pay overtime after eight hours per day or 40 hours per week.

"We're shedding tears of joy right now," said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers Union, which lobbied for years for an eight-hour day for agricultural employees.

The new law, part of a sweeping liberal agenda that passed in the last months of the 2015-2016 legislative session, ends an exemption meant to benefit farmers during the Depression-era implementation of the nation's first wage and hour laws.

It will make California the first state to require overtime for farmworkers who work more than eight hours per day. Under a 1970s executive action, farmworkers in the state get overtime after a 60 hour week or a 10-hour day, leading to long, backbreaking shifts and six-day work weeks, Rodriguez said.

California employs an estimated 800,000 seasonal farmworkers, about a third of the agricultural industry's nationwide workforce, according to the University of California report. Its agricultural economy is the largest in the United States, with $47 billion in revenue last year, according to state data.

Other states and the federal government continue to exempt farmworkers from overtime and other protections. Supporters, including Latino lawmakers whose parents and grandparents worked in the fields as migrant laborers from Mexico, say the change rectifies years of unfair practices.

But opponents, including many farmers and most Republican lawmakers, said that agricultural work is seasonal, with 60-hour weeks during the harvest and planting seasons, and no work at all during other parts of the year.

Requiring overtime, these opponents say, would be prohibitively expensive, leading farmers to cut back hours for pickers during a time when the workers need to earn more to make up for months of unemployment during other parts of the year.

"Farmers, ranchers and growers cannot afford this mandate," said state Senator Jim Nielsen, who represents agricultural and suburban areas north of Sacramento.

Farms employing fewer than 25 people would have three additional years to comply with the new law.

(Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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