On September 12, 2016, California became the first state to pass a law that requires overtime pay for farm workers. While it’s certainly an accomplishment worth celebrating, it’s also worth noting that, by default, that means 49 states still don’t require overtime pay for farm workers.
During peak seasons, it’s not uncommon for farmhands to put in 60+ hour weeks. But while the rest of America gets to enjoy time-and-a-half for working more than 40 hours in a week, millions of farmhands are out in the field, rain or shine, and never see a dime for the extra time they put in. If it sounds like there might be some racism at play, that’s because there is.
In August of 2014, the New York Times wrote a story on Antonio, an undocumented immigrant who worked 14 hours a day, six days a week, for $8 an hour… without any overtime compensation. Antonio’s story is not uncommon, especially in California. The Guardian reports that over over 90% of California’s farm workers are Latino. Of this 90%, only about 20% are U.S. citizens.
This leaves a huge population of farmhands who are vulnerable to being taken advantage of, and that’s precisely what’s been happening. Legal citizenship or not, it’s not okay to exploit a human being. To pay someone pennies on the dollar instead of what their labor is actually worth is modern day slavery.
Speaking of slavery, the history of not adequately compensating farm workers has roots that dig even deeper into American soil. In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act was established, which is what started minimum wage, overtime compensation, and child labor laws.
But farm workers have been exempt from these protections for decades. Why? Because back then, Southern Democrats refused to sign any law that would protect African Americans, who comprised the majority of the farming workforce at that time.
So while critics argue that requiring overtime compensation for farm workers will increase the price of food, it’s well worth the cost to know that people of color aren’t being taken advantage of.