Overtime pay after eight hours is the law for wage earners across California -- except for those who do some of the hardest work, harvesting fruit and vegetables in the state's fields and orchards.
Now Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, is trying to change that.
Florez is pushing for 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 by e-mail. "I don't see the difference and the logic of excluding farmworkers from overtime. It has never made sense to me."
But Florez faces an uphill battle: Such a law would undo the long-standing practice of allowing farmers to avoid higher labor costs during periods of peak demand for workers.
Even some farmworkers are leery of the bill, which passed the Senate and now heads to the Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment for a hearing Wednesday.
"Right now, what we want is to work," said Jose Hinojosa of Los Banos, who was recently weeding a cantaloupe field in Firebaugh. "Because of the drought, we all have been working less. And if this means that growers will cut back even more, then I don't think it is a good idea."
Already, California is the only state in the nation that provides overtime for farmworkers after 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week.
Farmers say the new law would put California at a competitive disadvantage in an agriculture marketplace that spans state borders, because other farmers in the nation don't have to pay overtime to farmworkers.
That means California farmers would have to absorb costs that their counterparts elsewhere don't.
And those costs can't be passed along to the consumer, because food prices are set at the retail level.
Less for workers?
Some say the result could be fewer hours for farmworkers.
"The troublesome part is that the consequences of something like this will be felt more negatively on the worker," said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League.
Bedwell's organization is one of more than two dozen of the state's largest and most influential agricultural groups opposing Senate Bill 1121.
He said farmers may reduce workers' hours to avoid paying overtime. There are ways of doing this and still getting the work done, he said. The hours can be spread among more workers.
There's plenty of labor available to make that happen, critics say, because many farmworkers are unemployed as a result of a multiyear drought in western Fresno County. In Mendota, one of the hardest-hit communities, the unemployment rate rose to 45% this March.
Florez doesn't buy that argument.
He said farmers will have to weigh the costs of hiring more workers against the cost of paying someone overtime. Any time an employer adds an employee, there is a cost, he said.
"So the question remains, is it worth the effort?" Florez said. "And is it worth the effort to disappoint your best farm laborers by denying them the extra pay that they are entitled to?"
His bill has supporters, including the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and the California Labor Federation.
"We think it is only fair that we extend the same overtime protection to farmworkers that is given to virtually every other private sector employee in California," said Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Labor Federation.
Long hours, low pay
At their busiest, workers harvest fruit seven days a week, sometimes more than 10 hours a day, and at times for as little as minimum wage.
Agriculture labor experts say farmers have been allowed to limit their overtime usage because of the intense demands for labor during certain times of the year. Perishable crops have a limited window to be harvested and must be taken from the fields quickly to be packed and shipped worldwide.
"Some years, we don't even know if we will make our costs of production, because we are subject to the ups and downs of the market," said west-side grower Joe Del Bosque. "This is going to be a challenge economically for a lot of growers."
Del Bosque, who is also a farm labor contractor, said he sympathizes with his workers, who want to work as many hours as they can. During the height of cantaloupe harvest, his crews will work seven days a week, earning overtime on Sunday.
"I think the workers are really being caught in the middle of this thing," Del Bosque said.
The United Farm Workers union, a Florez ally, has not offered much support for his bill. Political observers say they are putting their political muscle behind Senate Bill 1474, which makes it easier for farmworkers to join unions.
UFW spokeswoman Maria Machuca said that its members have mixed feelings on the issue of overtime.
"Many want to be treated like other workers who receive overtime after eight hours," Machuca said. "At the same time, they fear growers will reduce their hours if the general standard on overtime is applied to them."
Machuca said the union's solution to better overtime benefits can be won through union contracts.
"If farmworkers are organized, they can negotiate overtime pay in their union contracts if that's what they want," Machuca said.
Other worker advocates say that while they support fair treatment of farmworkers, the bigger issue in farm labor is providing undocumented farmworkers a path to legal residency.
"Workers who are undocumented are fearful to stand up for their rights," said Bruce Goldstein, executive director of Farmworker Justice in Washington, D.C.
Florez reaches his term limit this year. And the overtime legislation could cap a series of laws he's pushed through to improve the lives of farmworkers. The Kern County politician has fought to make riding in farm vans safer, tighten the rules for farm labor contractors, and enact restrictions to prevent pesticide drift.
The chances of his bill passing the Assembly and being signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger remain unclear. The Governor's Office generally does not comment on bills until they reach his desk.
But Florez holds out hope.
"I think Gov. Schwarzenegger has been fair to the plight of farmworkers in certain instances -- not in all, but in specific instances," Florez said. "I'm hoping that the governor recognizes the injustice of discriminating against one class of workers, and if he can imagine for a moment and put himself in the shoes of an immigrant farmworker, I trust that he will do the right thing."