California Producers Struggle To Absorb Higher Labor Rates Of Farm Workers, Turn To Mechanization | 2021-01-22

California farm employers continue to adjust to rising minimum wages and the rollout of new overtime pay requirements, sometimes shifting from manual labor to mechanized solutions. The rest of the country is watching closely to see if these trends in the agricultural workforce develop.

The first wave of changes for overtime started in 2019 for large employers (26 or more employees), and this is the last year of the transition period. Overtime now starts at 8.5 hours per day or 45 hours per week; In early 2022, field workers will save time and a half when they work more than 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week, just like workers in other industries. For small employers, the deployment period begins in 2022 and ends on January 1, 2025.

The implementation of the California statewide minimum wage increase was also different for smaller and larger farm employers. As of this month, the timetable requires large employers to pay a minimum of $ 14 an hour and small employers $ 13 an hour. Next year, larger employers will reach the $ 15 an hour mandate while smaller employers will have until January 1, 2023.

Farm workers are generally exempt from federal minimum wage and overtime requirements, although President Joe Biden has proposed in his campaign to remove those exemptions.

California already had “the strictest overtime of any agricultural state,” even before the new pay rules, said Roger Isom, president and CEO of the Western Agricultural Processors Association.

Roger Isom, Association of Western Agricultural Processors

Now a minimum wage worker working overtime in California will earn $ 21 an hour, while a person doing similar farm work in Texas might only earn $ 7.25 an hour, the minimum wage. federal, even after working more than 8.5 hours per day.

“It’s not that it’s inherently bad,” Isom said, “it’s just that we’re the only ones doing it.”

When employee compensation becomes too expensive, he says growers turn to less labor-intensive crops. He remembers a farm in the Central Valley that produced “the best catch you ever had.” But those white-fleshed sugar giants are gone.

“They pulled up 5,000 acres of fruit trees and put 5,000 acres of nuts,” Isom said. “Fruit trees take a lot of work and the guys don’t grow them anymore. “

In the United States, fewer peaches are grown. The number of acres of fisheries in the United States increased from 102,540 in 2014 to 74,400 acres in 2019, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

For some, the higher cost of labor makes it more convenient to invest in expensive equipment.

“Some of my almond processors had sorting lines,” Isom said. “They went to robotic sorters, which are million dollar pieces of equipment.” He says it took less than four years for the labor savings to cover the cost of the equipment, more than a year less than expected.

Bryan Little heads the Agricultural Employers’ Legal Department for the California Farm Bureau Federation and has watched employers try to adjust to the higher cost of labor.

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“They find it difficult to comply with it because it has the effect of increasing their operating costs quite dramatically,” he said. Recently, he spoke with a wine employer who was looking for autonomous tractors. He says a hinged handle on a self-propelled tractor could replace a pruning crew of four to five people.

“In some parts of the state there is still very little hand pruning,” Little said. “They’re taking out old vineyards and orchards that require manual labor and replacing them with different varieties, different crops that are grown and managed in different ways.”

Another trend that Isom sees expanding is the cultivation of crops in California, but their transformation elsewhere. He cites two examples: A nut farm that grows and hulls in California sends the nut meat to Nevada for processing, then returns it to the Port of Oakland for export. Some almonds grown in California are made into almond butter in Lubbock, Texas.

Isom says a national minimum wage closer to California’s would help maintain jobs and employers in the state.

“We might not actively support it,” he said, “but we wouldn’t oppose it because it would level the playing field.”

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