Today, I was informed that Assemblyman Robert Rivas had introduced a new set of bills to supposedly protect farmworkers from the impacts of COVID-19. See his website announcement at: https://a30.asmdc.org/press-releases/20200409-assemblymember-rivas-introduces-california-farmworker-covid-19-relief and also Modesto Bee Article at:
I was asked by a media person for a comment on this legislation, and here was my response:
We recognize and value the essential work provided by California farmworkers. They are a major factor in keeping fresh fruits and vegetables in our markets. We also value the incredible sacrifices made by our health care providers, and public safety officers in facing real, proven COVID-19 hazards on a daily basis. This includes low-wage workers employed in nursing homes, such as those who walked out of a facility in Riverside County.
Agricultural workers are covered under the FFCRA for up to 80 hours of paid sick leave and expanded FMLA. That is on top of the three days of paid sick leave available from the state of California. They are not required to work if they are sick, they are not caring for sick workers. Employers are directed to send any sick workers home to self-quarantine. And the agricultural employers we work with are implementing social distancing, more hand-wash facilities, and more frequent sanitizing of common-touch surfaces, such as bathroom door handles, water spigots, and rest area tables and chairs. California law already gives all workers, including agricultural workers annual increases of one dollar in the minimum wage, which will soon hit $15 per hour. Yes, agricultural work is hard and has its hazards. I did that work as a young person and have first-hand knowledge.
Many workers might need to survive on low wages, such as those nursing home employees, but employers need to remain within their budgets. Some employers pay more than others based on a variety of factors. Likewise, some agricultural work pays better in some areas than in others, based on a variety of factors. Unfortunately, growers and other agricultural employers are not price makers, they are price takers for the commodities they produce and sell. CostCo, WalMart, and other big buyers set the price, and agricultural producers try to find a way to manage their production budgets, which includes the price of labor. That's probably why we don't grow very much asparagus in California any more. CostCos and others can buy it at a lower price and for a longer season from South of the border.
If agricultural producers and employers could get a better price for their product, it would be possible to pass on some profits in the form of raises to farm workers. As it is, we all need to stay within budget to remain sustainable. I'm not sure where Assemblyman Rivas expects the extra money to come from. Will our legislature also provide a rescue package to agricultural employers like the federal CARES Act - PPP to subsidize these extra costs in wages? If there is an employer relief package that comes along with the temporary wage increase for workers, then employers would likely be fine with this. Otherwise, they will find other ways to reward their workers for their loyalty and efforts. It’s also important to note that farm workers are showing up for their jobs, and they aren’t complaining about pay rates or requesting hazard pay. They understand they are in a better position than many other immigrants who had chosen to work in restaurants or in hotels or in landscaping jobs that are now mostly gone.