by Sally Colby
Although Erick Wilson didn’t grow up in agriculture, he has devoted his life to it. Wilson worked side by side with farm workers in California for 10 years, doing grueling fieldwork from planting to harvest. He says he’s glad he had the experience because it gave him an opportunity to learn about agriculture from the ground up.
Today, Wilson owns and operates a custom crop spraying business, which puts him in touch with a variety of agriculture enterprises every day. He’s concerned about recent legislation in his state that requires employers to pay overtime to workers who work more than eight hours a day. Wilson explains that overtime is currently paid to workers for more than 10 hours/day or 60 hours/week. The newly signed bill will have a phase-in period, and by 2022, will require overtime pay for workers who work more than 40 hours/week.
Wilson explains his take on the newly passed bill, which is similar to what many in agriculture have expressed: “In agriculture, we pay overtime after 60 hours,” he said. “Everybody said, ‘folks in ag need to get overtime like everyone else.’ So on paper, we just made it so that ag workers will get overtime after 40 hours. But employers will cut hours to 40, so workers will lose 20 hours right there. I know a lot of those workers, and that’s what I’m worried about.”
Then there’s the trickle-down effect. As a custom sprayer, Wilson charges by the acre. Like other farmers, Wilson relies on mobile mechanics, mobile tire repair and other services to keep his business up and running. “I figure out what it costs me to do the job, and what can I get out of it to feed my family,” he said. “With the minimum wage going to $15 and the new overtime, every person I do business with will somehow come under those same guidelines. I’m going to have to pay costs that are passed on to me. Then I look at my grower who’s doing the same thing. Is there room for me to raise my rates? Equipment dealers, chemical companies and other ag suppliers will pass costs to customers.”
Wilson believes that consumers will look at two identical products, one from California and one from another state, which have two different prices and select the product that costs less. “That’s where California will lose,” he said, “because the costs of employers having to pay more in overtime will be passed on. With this overtime bill, I worry about the people who need the help the most. There are a lot of creative ways to get money into the hands of the people who do the hard work that a lot of others won’t do. It frustrates me to see rural communities that have high unemployment yet also have labor shortage. There are a lot of people who could be working, but the work is hard.”
Wilson wonders whether companies will redesign the workday to include two, 6-hour shifts or work 12-hour shifts. That, coupled with the growing use of mechanization for harvest, leads Wilson and many others to predict that mechanization will become even more widely used to keep labor costs down.
The UFW (United Farm Workers) is behind the new law, and Wilson says that’s a point of frustration for some because the union knew the outcome would be that farm workers would have their hours reduced. However, Wilson believes that most farm workers aren’t interested in giving up a chunk of their pay to join the union. “The bill will force them to decide whether they want to make 34 percent less or join the union to get their income back,” he said. “Instead of losing 34 percent of their money, they’ll lose two or three percent to the union. They may not want to join, but they will to get their hours back. It makes it harder on their families because they’ll be traveling more, chasing harvest and working crazy shift hours.”
One of the issues Wilson believes is behind the support for an overtime bill is that people are uncomfortable seeing farm workers doing hard work in the field. “They feel guilty about that,” he said. “I’ve done that hard work, but with just throwing money at something, there are unintended consequences. Without these people (farm workers), we couldn’t do what we do.”