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July 2020, Volume 26, Number 3
California farmers faced higher labor costs and lower revenues due to Covid-19. Employers are required to have Injury and Illness Prevention Programs (IIPPs),. The state?s Division of Occupational Safety and Health known or Cal/OSHA in April 2020 instructed farm employers to update their IIPPs to include policies to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and to designate someone to assess and mitigate hazards, investigate illnesses and keep records.
Most farm employers encouraged and required sick employees to stay home, installed more handwashing facilities and reminded workers to use them, and implemented physical distancing while working and during breaks. Some growers already require their employees to wear hair nets to enhance food safety, and some provided personal protective equipment to prevent the spread of the virus. Transportation providers often made several trips with their buses and vans in order to allow riders to spread out.
Prices for many commodities fell as consumers made fewer trips to supermarkets and bought less fresh produce. Sales of packaged salads and berries fell, as did grower prices of these commodities. Exports dropped due to lockdowns in other countries and the strong dollar, depressing commodity prices.
During the first three months of the pandemic, relatively few farm workers got Covid-19. However, in June 2020, over 85 percent of the 216 H-2A workers at the Villa Las Brisas housing complex that housed nine workers per room in Oxnard operated by Reiter Affiliated Companies tested positive for Covid-19.
Taylor Farms, which has 5,000 employees in the Salinas area, reported in April 2020 that only one worker tested positive for the virus. Many farm employers noted that food safety protocols already in place require frequent handwashing. Farmers whose employees did not report to work said the major reason was that absent employees were in high-risk groups.
State. Governor Gavin Newsom issued executive order N-51-20 in April 2020 that requires employers of food-sector workers with 500 or more employees to provide two weeks of paid sick leave to their employees. The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act already requires employers with fewer than 500 employees to provide paid sick leave to employees.
Newsom on May 7, 2020 signed executive order N-62-20 that presumes essential workers who get Covid-19 contracted it on the job, which makes them eligible for workers? compensation benefits. Employers can try to prove that their employees did not contract Covid-19 on the job.
Newsom?s order is retroactive to March 19, 2020 and lasts for two months. California employers paid almost $19 billion in Workers? Compensation premiums in 2019; the extra cost of Newsom?s order may cost state employers perhaps $11 billion in additional premiums, depending on how many workers get sick and receive benefits. In March-April 2020, about 20 percent of those applying for WC benefits due to Covid-19 were hospitalized.
Assembly member Eduardo Rivas introduced the five-bill California Farmworker COVID-19 Relief Package in April 2020 to assist farm workers and farm employers during the Covid-19 pandemic. AB 2915 would expand state-mandated paid sick leave, provide supplemental hazard pay to farm workers, and offer subsidies to those who care for farm worker children. This bill would also fund outreach campaigns to inform farm workers of how to protect themselves from COVID-19.
California currently requires three days of paid sick leave for all workers, including farm workers. AB 2915 would expand paid sick leave to two weeks.
AB 2956 would grant tax credits to farm employers who pay overtime wages to farm workers; AB 2614 would improve telehealth services in rural areas; AB 3144 would streamline the approval process for smaller housing developments; and AB 2165 would expand the availability of electronic filing to access state trial courts. The overtime tax credit could increase the supply of farm labor. If farm employers receive a state tax credit for the overtime wages they pay, they are more likely to pay 1.5 times usual wages for work in excess of nine hours a day and 50 hours a week, which would help to stretch the current workforce.
Piece Rates. Many employers pay piece-rate wages to workers whose effort is difficult to monitor, as when apple pickers earn $25 per 1,000 pound bin of apples picked. Piece rates are normally set so that the average worker earns more than the minimum wage, which gives workers an incentive to work faster.
Workers are entitled to paid rest breaks, and courts in California, Washington, and other states have ruled that workers paid piece rates must receive their average hourly earnings for these rest periods. Previously, many employers simply divided total employee earnings by the number of hours worked and, if the average hourly earnings exceeded the minimum wage, they did not provide piece-rate workers with extra compensation.
There are many piece-rate wage systems, including group piece rates that provide an hourly base wage and a bonus if a crew of workers exceeds a base level of production. Tanimura & Antle was sued by a group of workers in April 2017 who alleged that the hourly wage plus group bonus system was a piece rate, and that all crew members should have been paid the hourly wage plus bonus for rest periods.
T&A pay stubs listed each employee?s hourly wage and the worker?s share of the group bonus separately, but T&A convinced two courts that it was not paying piece-rate wages because the amount of the group bonus was not based solely on their units of production. Attorneys for 5,000 affected workers over several years appealed to the California Supreme Court in May 2020.
Strawberry pickers at Rancho Laguna Farms in Santa Maria received an increase in their piece rate from $1.90 to $2.10 a flat in June 2020 after a strike by some of the 600 workers. Some employees did not return after the strike, prompting a charge with the ALRB that they had been retaliated against for going on strike.
Cal/OSHA issued regulations in June 2020 requiring from three to 10-foot candles of light for night work in agriculture. Three-foot candles are required for rest areas, five for normal work, and ten for tasks that require sharp tools such as knives.
ALS. The Agricultural Labor Survey reported that US farmers hired almost 700,000 workers directly during the second week of April 2020 and paid them $15 an hour. Over 83 percent of these directly hired workers were expected to be employed on the responding farm 150 days or more, and they worked an average 40 hours a week. California employers reported 145,000 directly hired workers, including 88 percent they expected to employ more than 150 days. These 150-and-more day workers average 39 hours a week and $17.50 an hour in April 2020.
US farms with sales of $1 million or more employed 60 percent of directly hired US farm workers in April 2020. Half of directly hired US workers were employed on ?other crop? farms, a seventh on field crop farms, and almost 40 percent on livestock farms. Some 30 percent of directly hired workers were employed on US farms with 51 or more farm workers. The ALS does not include data on workers by size of farm for states and regions.
The ALS collects data on employment and wages by SOC. The largest group in April 2020, 270,000 or 40 percent of all workers, were SOC 45-2092, crop, nursery or greenhouse workers. Their average hourly wage was $14 an hour.