CIRS Blog about Rural California
The Los Angeles Times reviewed the status of mechanization in various crops July 21, 2017, emphasizing the large number of prototype machines in development to replace hand workers. From apples to strawberries, tech firms are developing machines to harvest crops.
Asparagus acreage is declining, and many leafy greens are harvested mechanically with knives or water jet cutters. Urban tech firms want radical changes in farming to facilitate mechanization, while firms such as Ramsay Highlander in Salinas stress the productivity gains from incremental changes such as conveyor belts to make hand workers more productive. Machines are being used to plant lettuce so that it does not have to be thinned.
Christopher Ranch, which hires 600 workers to pack and process 90 million pounds of garlic a year at its plant in Gilroy, saw a surge in applications after raising packing shed wages from $11 to $13 an hour in 2017; the firm's minimum wage is scheduled to increase to $15 in 2018. The wages of more skilled packing shed workers rose as well. Christopher uses FLC (Farm Labor Contractor) crews and H-2A workers in the fields, where workers are paid piece rates.
A Spring 2017 Washington Post survey found that rural Americans are uneasy about the changing demographics of the U.S. and believe their Christianity is under attack as the federal government caters to urban residents. For example, 42 percent of rural residents agree that immigrants are mostly a drain on the U.S., compared with 16 percent of urban residents. Two-thirds of rural residents say cracking down on illegal migrants would improve job prospects in their areas.
Rural was defined as non-metro counties and counties near population centers with up to 250,000 people, so that a quarter of Americans were considered rural in the poll. Pollsters say that the underlying issue is fairness, with rural residents skeptical of whom the federal government favors and helps.
Rural areas have had a weaker recovery from the 2008-09 recession than urban areas, and job growth has not returned to 2007 levels, prompting rural youth to leave for education and jobs and not return. A third of rural residents said that jobs and drug abuse were the biggest problems confronting their community, compared with 10 percent of urban residents.
The Wall Street Journal reported on May 26, 2017 that the total rural population declined in each of the past five years. Births in rural counties are declining, deaths are rising, and the median age of 41 is higher than the median 35 in large metro areas. Male labor force participation in rural counties is declining, and there are 60 disabled workers per 1,000 working age residents in rural counties, double the 30 per 1,000 rate in large metro areas.
Agriculture has two major sectors, crops and livestock. Crops require the most hired workers, many of whom work seasonally, while livestock employs a higher share of year-round workers. Total crop labor expenditures were $23 billion in 2012, and livestock labor expenditures were $10 billion.
All data sources agree that California has about 30 percent of U.S. crop worker employment, followed by three states with 5 to 6 percent, Washington, Florida and Texas. Two more states have about 3 percent of crop worker employment, Michigan and Oregon, so that over half of crop worker employment is in six states.
The distribution of hours worked in livestock is different. Texas and California each have 10 percent of livestock hours worked, followed by Wisconsin with 6 percent and Iowa and New York with almost 4 percent each, so that one third of livestock hours worked are in the five leading states. Livestock hours are less concentrated than crop hours because there is no California among livestock states.
California requires overtime pay for farmworkers, one of four states to do so. In 1976 the 10/60 standard (that requires overtime after 10 hours a day or 60 a week, different than the standard eight hours a day and 40 hours a week for non-farmworkers) was established in 1976.
Across the U.S., workers hired directly by the farm that employed them averaged 41 hours of work in July 2015; California farmworkers averaged 43.6 hours. Most harvest workers are employed less than eight hours a day, but some work six days a week during the harvest. Workers most likely to be affected by an 8/40 overtime pay requirement are irrigators and equipment operators, who often work 60 or more hours a week during busy periods.
Sonoma County farm labor contractors (FLCs) Four Seasons Vineyard Management and Ridge Vineyards were fined $42,000 by the Department of Labor (DOL) in February 2016 for poor housing for farmworkers. Four Seasons deducted rent from the wages of workers and turned rental payments over to Ridge.
Two California Court of Appeals decisions in 2013 required employers to pay piece rate workers for nonproductive time and to pay them for rest periods at their average piece-rate earnings. Before these 2013 rulings, employers could pay only piece-rate wages to workers as long as their piece-rate earnings exceeded the minimum wage.
Many workers planned to sue for back wages. AB 1513 gave employers a "safe harbor," allowing them to pay any back wages due piece-rate workers after July 1, 2012 without penalties. However, employers who faced suits for unpaid productive time and for using fictitious workers to reduce wages were excluded from the safe harbor.
Two farms are affected by these exclusions, Gerawan Farming and Fowler Packaging. Both face United Farm Workers-initiated suits, and both sued in January 2016 to have the AB 1513 exemption declared unconstitutional.
Don Villarejo, a leading farm labor researcher, highlighted 40 years of continuity and change in California agriculture and farm labor. The continuities include low incomes and poverty for many seasonal workers, while the changes include fewer and larger growers, more intermediaries who bring workers to farms, and fewer union contracts.
There have been important regulatory changes aimed at protecting farm workers, from the federal MSPA (1974) to the state ALRA (1975), but they have not prevented declining earnings. In 1974, California farm employers reported an average $2.60 per hour, which BLS says is $12.49 in 2014 (http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl), when reported earnings were $11.33. California farm worker earnings were 52 percent of manufacturing worker earnings in both 1974 and 2014 despite a raft of federal and state laws that aimed to protect and empower farm workers.
The shift to hiring workers via farm labor contractors (FLCs) and other intermediaries is also associated with fewer benefits, from housing to health insurance. There were 9,300 farm labor contractors registered with DOL in May 2015, including 4,100 or 43 percent in California.
Beginning July 1, 2015, all California employers must give their employees three paid sick days a year or allow them to accumulate paid sick leave at the rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked. Many employers plan to grant employees three days of sick leave at the beginning of each year.
Cal/OSHA tightened its heat-safety regulations effective May 1, 2015 to require "fresh, pure, and suitably cool" water to be located as close as practicable to workers. Employers must provide shade for all workers when the temperature tops 80 degrees, down from 85, and must monitor workers for signs of heat stress when temperatures exceed 95 degrees. All outdoor workers must be trained in a language they understand about the dangers of heat illness.
SB 1522, the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act of 2014, was signed into law in September 2014. SB 1522 requires employers to give employees at least three sick days a year and will cover 6.5 million private and public sector employees in California beginning July 1, 2015. Employees accrue paid sick days at the rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked, so that a full-time worker employed 40 hours a week would accrue 8.6 days of paid sick leave a year.
Employees who are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement accrue three days of paid sick leave after being employed for 90 days to use to care for themselves or a family member such as a child, spouse, domestic partner, grandparent, grandchild or sibling.
In summer 2014, three major farm labor trends stand out: few labor shortages, many labor-saving changes, and segmenting farm labor contractors (FLCs.)