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July 2022, Volume 28, Number 3

California: Santa Maria, H-2A

California’s minimum wage of $15 an hour for employers with 26 or more employees is scheduled to increase to $15.50 January 1, 2023 due to high inflation. A proposition on the November 2022 ballot would raise the state’s minimum wage to $18 an hour in $1 increments.

Strawberries are the most labor-intensive commodity grown in California, requiring about 1.5 workers per acre to pick fields twice a week. Some 30,000 acres are planted in the fall and harvested during the spring and summer of the following year.

Workers at several Santa Maria area strawberry farms, including Manzanita Berry Farms, Sorrento Berry, and Aquistapace Harvesting, refused to work in April 2022 to support demands for higher piece rates. Similar worker demands for higher pay occurred at J&G Berry Farms (California Giant) in May 2022.

Most growers pay harvesters $2 to $2.50 per flat of eight one-pound clamshells. J&G was paying $2.15 before their workers went on strike and raised the piece rate to $2.20 to persuade strikers to return to work. Oxnard-based Mixteco organization MICOP (Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project) helped the Mixteco-speaking workers to demand higher piece rates.

MICOP filed charges with the ALRB alleging that J&G unlawfully surveilled striking workers in May 2022. J&G in turned sued MICOP, alleging that it was acting as a labor union without filing paperwork with the ALRB.

H-2A. Adams Brothers Farming in Santa Maria was ordered by DOL to pay $94,000 in back wages to 30 H-2A workers and $8,000 in CMPs. Boavista Farms was ordered to pay $43,000 in back wages and $5,000 in CMPs, and Profresco Inc to pay $51,000 in back wages and $7,500 in CMPs.

The New York Times reviewed the growth of the H-2A program in the Monterey area in May 2022, attributing the upsurge to: (1) the aging of the unauthorized workers who arrived in their 20s between the 1990s and the 2008-09 recession and; (2) the sharp reduction in unauthorized newcomers. The H-2A program allows farmers to hire legal guest workers, but the hourly costs of H-2A workers are higher than for US workers (including the unauthorized), spurring efforts to develop machines to replace hand labor and accelerating imports.

Imports of hand-harvested commodities such as asparagus are rising. California had 4,000 acres of asparagus in 2020, compared with 47,000 acres in Sinaloa, Mexico, a reversal of acreages in the two areas from the 1990s. There is little economic incentive to develop machines for small acreage crops that pose difficult technical challenges because few could be sold.

PAGA. The US Supreme Court in June 2022 ruled 8-1 that arbitration clauses in employee contracts can block suits under California’s Private Attorneys General Act. California is the only state with a PAGA, enacted in 2004, that allows workers to sue their employers for violations of state labor laws.

An employee signed a contract with Viking River Cruises that included an agreement to settle disputes via arbitration, but filed a class-action suit under PAGA for violations of state labor laws. The USSC dismissed the Viking PAGA suit, but said that Legislature could adjust PAGA in ways that could permit some class-action suits despite arbitration agreements. Voters may be asked to repeal PAGA on a proposition being prepared for the 2024 ballot.

Under PAGA, attorneys for workers notify the Labor Commissioner’s office of the labor law violations. The Labor Commissioner has 30 days to decide whether to investigate the workers’ claims, but only 16 of 1,340 PAGA claims were investigated in 2017-18.

Labor Commissioner teams reviewed 1,500 PAGA settlements, and found that three-fourths benefited primarily the attorneys who sued rather than the workers involved. PAGA attorneys received an average of over $400,000 per settlement, while the affected employees received an average $2,000.

Overtime. Farm employers with 26 or more workers must pay overtime to their employees on an 8/40 basis in 2022, prompting complaints from employers and workers. Employers noted that many of their employees want to work 45 or more hours a week, while workers noted that the $1 increase in the minimum wage means $40 a week more for a 40-hour week but, if the workweek is cut from 45 to 40 hours, workers lose $75. Some employers are reportedly adding second shifts with additional employees, while some workers are seeking second jobs.

Sonoma WISE (Wine Industry for Safe Employees) in May 2022 reported 6,800 vineyard employees in the county, including 6,100 who worked year-round. QCEW data find that the 200 grape vineyards in Sonoma county had average employment of 2,100 in 2021 and paid these employees an average $940 a week. Another 100 crop support service firms employed an average 2,200 workers in 2021 and paid their employees $880 a week.

SB 1066 would appropriate $20 million in state funds to provide farm workers who are adversely affected by drought with $1,000-a-month payments for three years beginning in 2023. AB 2847 would allow unauthorized workers in the state including farm workers to obtain state UI benefits. AB 2243 would require Cal-OSHA to set protection standards for outdoor workers when temperatures exceed 105F that include plans to prevent heat illness and paid rest breaks.

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