SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - California lawmakers Thursday sent Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a bill that would require farmers to pay overtime to field hands after they work eight hours in a day, ending a nearly 70-year exemption for the state's largest industry.
The bill, SB1121, would change state law so farm workers are no longer exempt from the overtime laws that cover most other hourly workers.
Currently, farm workers can earn overtime only when they work 10 or more hours in a day.
Supporters described the 46-26 vote in the state Assembly as one for fairness for laborers excluded from overtime protections since 1941.
"If people who work in air conditioned offices get overtime after eight hours, farm workers should, too," said Assemblyman Juan Arambula, I-Fresno.
The bill is backed by the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, the United Farm Workers, the United Food & Commercial Workers Western States Council and other labor groups.
Critics say agriculture, which employs as many as 450,000 workers during the peak harvest months of August and September, is unlike other professions because work hours are dependent on weather conditions that require greater flexibility in scheduling workers. For example, rain or hot weather can keep farm workers out of the fields.
Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, R-Ceres, said farmers like himself will simply run larger crews so they can avoid paying overtime. Berryhill, who grows wine grapes in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, predicted farm workers would see a 20 to 30 percent pay cut if the bill is signed into law.
"This bill is not a big pain for agriculture. We'll deal with it. It's no big deal," Berryhill told his colleagues during the floor debate. "We'll run larger crews. We'll adjust, but the people this bill hurts are the very people it is intended to help."
The California Farm Bureau Federation, one of more than a dozen farm groups opposed to the bill, plans to urge Schwarzenegger to veto the bill, in part because of concern farmers faced with higher labor costs could go out of business.
The Republican governor has not taken a position on the bill, said Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear.
Maryland and Minnesota are the only other states that require farmers to pay workers overtime, although workers there are given overtime when they exceed a weekly limit, said Bryan Little, director for labor affairs for the farm bureau.
"If you increase the price of labor to get your crop planted, cultivated and harvested by 10 percent, that probably takes away half of whatever profit margin you had," Little said. "You make it difficult for farmers to be competitive."
He also echoed lawmakers' arguments that farm workers currently rely on 60-hour weeks in the summer to offset low wages in the winter when work is scarce. That could change if farm workers can't work extra long work days during the summer under the OT rules, Little said.
Farm worker groups say farmers have deployed similar "scare tactics" in the past when faced with state regulations.
"This argument that the industry is unique and different is not new," said Merlyn Calderon, California political director at the United Farm Workers. "It really just comes down to treating farm workers like every other worker."