07/05/2010 02:47 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Overtime for Farmworkers in California: Who Will it Hurt?

"Up before dawn, working until sunset picking plums and filling the bins. We work each day until Apa says it's time to quit." (excerpt from Out of the Fields My Journey from Farmworker Boy to Pediatrician, Ramon Resa MD 2010).

The life of a farmworker is hard and the hours are long. Because of the nature of job, each day is subject to the unpredictability of the weather. Sometimes work is abundant, and other times the workers suffer the consequences of chance and have to manage without work for weeks or even months at a time. Therefore, when work is available it is not unusual to work twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week.

I, myself, worked in the fields through high school and even during breaks from college and medical school. I remember sleeping in the back of a pickup truck, covered in blankets to protect myself from the pre-dawn cold. Then, I worked through the hundred-degree weather until sunset. It's back-breaking work.

Yet for some reason, farmworkers have never been treated like other employees in California. The law demands overtime pay for work after eight hours. As an employer now, I am very aware of this law. Growing up a farmworker I never thought much of working for more than half the day. In fact, we were glad for the work when we could get it. I remember too many Christmases where the crop had frozen, and we survived only through the generosity of charities and ingenuity.

Now, decades after overtime laws came into existence, someone wants to change the way farm workers are treated. Senator Dean Florez, D-Shafter, is proposing a law that would give farmworkers the same overtime benefits as other hourly employees. "I think it is wrong that we have laws that discriminate against the people who pick and pull crops in the fields by treating them differently in terms of pay." Florez said in an article by Paul Rodriquez of the Fresno Bee ("A Push to Even the Labor Fields").

One would think that farmworkers would be thrilled to have a Senator fighting for their rights, but this is not necessarily the case. Some are not too sure of the bill, which has passed the Senate and now heads to the Assembly Committee on labor and Employment for a hearing.

"Right now, what we want is to work," said Jose Hinojosa of Los Banos (Fresno Bee). The prolonged drought that has affected California for the last several years has taken a toll on farmworkers, and they have been working less because of it. Now they are hungry to put in long hours and make money while they can. Jose thinks, as do other farmworkers, that the growers will cut back on their work if they are forced to pay overtime.

From the farmers point of view they feel the new law would put California at a disadvantage in an agriculture marketplace because other farmers from other states don't have to pay overtime. California is the only state in the nation that does provide for overtime after ten hours a day or 60 hours a week.

The biggest concern from the worker is the possibility that the farmers may reduce workers' hours to avoid paying overtime. Because so many farmworkers are unemployed, there is no shortage of workers and all the farmer has to do is spread the work among more workers. Since most are unskilled at other jobs, this is the only work they can get, and farm work is one of the lowest paying jobs in the nation. Farmworkers have to depend on working long hours to make ends meet.

In the past, it wasn't unusual to have the whole family working ten to twelve hours a day. As I am well familiar, no one was left behind, from the youngest to the oldest. You did whatever you were capable of. With the passing of child labor laws, however, children were no longer allowed to work in the fields, forcing parents to work longer hours on their own.

Workers would love to see overtime pay. But at the same time, they fear the reduction in their hours, leaving them worse than they were before. Farmworkers have always been leery of any changes in the fields. In the past, whenever the state tried to improve working conditions, the farmers ended up turning to more modern techniques to harvest their crops. (After the grape harvest, we would pick cotton, but with the arrival of the cotton picker, we lost that harvest, and the money we usually made in the fall).

Having been a farm worker and knowing how difficult the job is, I am in favor of the passage of this bill. It is only fair that all workers be treated equally. I pay my employees overtime, why shouldn't farmers do the same, not only in California but in every state? After all, this is about being fair to all parties, and California farmers should not be burdened with extra cost.