News : Farmworkers push for overtime pay : Half Moon Bay Review newspaper, San Mateo county, Ca

HMB workers head to Sacramento to present overtime bill

By Amy Julia Harris

Fifty-one displaced workers from Nurserymen’s Exchange took up a new labor crusade last week, marching to Sacramento to hand-deliver a bill to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk. The bill would extend time-and-a-half pay for farmworkers after eight hours a day and lift a decades-old overtime exemption for agriculture workers. Under existing law, overtime pay for farmworkers kicks in after 10 hours a day and 60 hours a week. Farmworkers are currently the only hourly employees in the state not to receive overtime pay after eight hours a day, 40 hours a week.

Schwarzenegger has 12 days to respond to the bill, which has already passed through the state Senate and Assembly. If signed, the new overtime law takes effect Jan. 1, and could spell big changes for some of the 329 farms in San Mateo County.

Carlos Acosta, 54, an out-of-work migrant worker from Half Moon Bay, thinks it’s about time farmworkers are compensated for their work. Like the dozens of other Half Moon Bay workers who took up the overtime cause, he is concerned that if he doesn’t get his job back at Nurserymen’s Exchange, a Half Moon Bay flower company that provides overtime pay after eight hours, it’s back to the fields for him.

The Acosta family of Half Moon Bay recently traveled to Sacremento to support legislation that would provide field workers with overtime pay after 40 hours of work per week instead of the current limit of 60. Brothers Leobardo and Carlos Acosta (center right) worked in the fields for years and were not paid overtime. They subsequently were paid for overtime at Nurseryman’s Exchange until they lost their jobs two weeks ago and are currently protesting with the United Farmworkers as well as supporting other farm labor issues in the state.

Acosta worked at a farm in Pescadero for 20 years before he came to Nurserymen’s Exchange and remembers working 75 hours a week picking fava beans and artichokes with no extra pay. He doesn’t want to revisit that regimen.

“But I’ll go wherever to work,” he said. “If I have to work in the field, I’ll go back.”

Efren Barajas, vice president of the United Farm Workers division of Salinas, doesn’t want to see that happen. He has been helping the Nurserymen’s Exchange workers protest their recent layoff and rallied the Coastside workers to make the trip to Sacramento to press for the overtime bill. He says that providing overtime is “the right thing to do” for workers and will make economic sense for farmers.

“Farmers will have to provide insurance for new workers, so I think it will be cheaper for them to pay overtime — that’s the better investment,” he said. “If farmers were so worried already, they’d pay a decent wage. There are people in the fields trying to make a living, and they deserve the same rights as everyone else.”

But Richard Matteis, administrator for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said that California is already considerate of farmworkers and has the most comprehensive law in the country regarding overtime pay. California is currently the only state to require overtime pay for agricultural workers after 10 hours a day. Maryland, Minnesota and Hawaii are the only three other states that have weekly overtime requirements for farmworkers.

Some farmers, however, say this is yet another blow to their already slim profit margins and that, in the end, it will mean smaller paychecks for workers who earn around $9 to $10 an hour and rely on long work weeks.

Joe Muzzi, owner of Muzzi Ranch in Pescadero, said that the overtime bill is a political mistake that hurts everyone. He says farmers will face rising costs, workers will make less money and consumers will pay more.

“The people we have working for us put in 50 or 60 hours, so I don’t know what they’re going to do,” said Muzzi. He grows brussels sprouts, leeks, fava beans and peas on his farm and has between 30 and 35 workers. “The governor might want to do this, but I’m totally against it.”

Muzzi said if the bill passed he would be forced to hire more workers for shorter stints. Plus, the added cost would be transferred to consumers.

“I think the consumers are paying enough as it is, and when I see the prices of vegetables in the store, it’s ridiculous,” said Muzzi. “This added cost would eventually end up on the other end in the grocery stores.”

“Red” Marchi, who has about 35 workers on his farm in Pescadero, says that this is a bad break for both farmers and for the farmworkers.

“At the end, the farmworker is going to make less,” Marchi said. “They’re trying to convert farm work to factory work, and it just isn’t the same.”

But the potential loss of work doesn’t worry Ruben Acosta, Chris Acosta’s brother and a field worker for 17 years. For him, the overtime bill is an equality issue.

“The Mexican always gets the minimum every time,” Acosta said in Spanish, waving a “Si Se Puede” sign. “The worry is about equality, not whether we’ll have less work. Let’s get to equality first.”

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