In California, Senate Bill 1121 has passed both houses of the legislature and is sitting on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk, waiting for either his signature or his veto. The bill would remove the agricultural overtime exemptions for the state’s farm laborers, including dairy employees.

SB1121 would give California’s farm workers something that farm workers in no other state receive: overtime pay for more than 8 hours worked in a day or 40 hours in a week. Agricultural groups have said that the unintended consequence of the bill is that farm managers would be more likely to hire additional, possibly part-time, employees rather than incur the expense of overtime wages, which could reduce paychecks to those the bill intends to help.

“I think employers will adjust” to “minimize their costs,” if the bill passes, said Bryan Little, labor-affairs director at the California Farm Bureau. California, unlike other states, already requires time-and-a-half for farm laborers after a 10-hour day or a 60-hour week. If employers face an even lower threshold, they will try to cope by switching crews in the middle of a job, or even plowing under crops, Little said. “They’re going to say, ‘Those extra acres of onions aren’t worth harvesting so I’m going to disc it under’.”

State Sen. Dean Florez, sponsor of the overtime bill, has said that every time an attempt is made to increase rights for farm laborers, the industry has fought back by saying it cannot survive such changes. In the 1970s, he said, the industry fought getting rid of short-handled hoes for weeding fields by arguing that a prohibition would put farmers out of business. Florez said farmers are doing well enough to share more of the profits from California’s bounty and that overtime hours are not so frequent that employers are unable to handle more of it at the high season. “These are factories in the fields,” Florez said. “We shouldn’t buy into the argument that this is different type of work.”

But the industry argues that there is a core reason for having a higher threshold for overtime pay: farming is affected by sudden weather changes, and summer heat quickens the ripening of crops, requiring a sustained effort to bring in the harvest while it is still marketable. Paul Underhill, a Winters organic farmer, strongly opposes the Florez bill. He said his small Terra Firma Farms struggles to employ the same people year-round, and give them more hours in the summer to make up for shorter hours during the winter. “It’s not a moral issue,” Underhill said. “Is agriculture a different workplace than a factory? Despite the argument that it isn’t, it is. The reality is we need a wage rule that reflects that.”

Western United Dairymen urges members to contact the Governor’s office to ask him to veto Senate Bill 1121. Messages should be short and to the point, with specific information about how this bill would affect their own dairy and farming operation. To submit a comment, go to on the California Farm Bureau Web site.

Source: Western United Dairymen Weekly Update