April 2023, Volume 29, Number 2
California: Labor’s Big 3
California’s three major farm labor issues in 2023 were sharply rising wages, more H-2A workers and adjustments to new state laws. The average hourly earnings of farm workers increased, giving California an AEWR of $18.65 an hour in 2023, the highest in the US. Young and better-educated H-2A workers are more productive than older and unauthorized farm workers who have settled in one place.
Second, California (44,000 H-2A jobs certified) should surpass Florida (51,000 H-2A jobs certified) as the number one H-2A state before 2025. About half of US H-2A certifications, and a higher share of California certifications, involve labor contractors who bring workers to farms.
Third, California farmers are adjusting to new state laws that require overtime pay on an 8/40 basis, create new ways for unions to organize farm workers, and raise health and safety standards. With farm wages projected to continue increasing, farmers and produce buyers face a choice between MMI: machines to replace hand workers, migrant H-2A workers, or imports of labor intensive commodities.
The race between machines and imports is most apparent in commodities such as blueberries. Machines are available to harvest blueberries, and rising imports from Canada, Mexico and Peru limit price increases for US growers. Harvesting blueberries by machine means accepting a lower pack-out rate, since machines damage more fruit.
Average hourly farm earnings have been half of nonfarm earnings, or $12.50 and $25 an hour. Today, hourly farm earnings are 60 percent of nonfarm earnings and, if current trends continue, could be 70 percent by 2030. Seasonality is decreasing as California farm employment increases during the winter months.
UI. California normally collects about $6 billion a year in UI taxes and pays $5 billion a year in UI benefits.
SB 227 would create an unemployment insurance program for unauthorized workers administered by the State’s Employment Development Department to provide up to $300 a week to laid off farm workers who are not eligible for regular UI at an estimated cost of $350 million a year. A similar bill enacted by the Legislature in 2022 with an estimated cost of $600 million was vetoed due to the state’s looming deficit, which may top $25 billion in 2023-24.
SB 262 would create a $20 million California Farmworkers Drought Resilience Pilot Project to pay farm workers who lose income due to the fallowing of land up to $1,000 a month for three years; a similar bill was vetoed in 2022.
Sant Maria-based Red Blossom Farms agreed in December 2022 to rehire and pay $8,399 in lost wages to two strawberry workers to settle an unfair-labor-practice charge filed in 2022 with the ALRB alleging that the workers were not rehired because they complained about a foreman’s misconduct.
SB 1162, enforced by the state’s Civil Rights Department (formerly Fair Employment and Housing), requires employers of 100 or more employees during an employer-specified payroll period between October and December to report the pay scales for their jobs.
Cal/OSHA. The Cal/OSHA Standards Board in March 2023 refused to create an advisory committee to consider driverless tractors. Current regulations require drivers on all agricultural vehicles (Title 8, Section 3441). Equipment manufacturers say that autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles are safe and used in mining and construction; labor advocates maintain that operators are needed on all agricultural vehicles.
HMB. California suffered several mass killings of four or more persons in January 2023, including one in Half Moon Bay that led to the deaths of seven mushroom and nursery workers and another in Goshen, a town of 5,000, that was believed to be gang related. Kern, Merced and Tulare counties have the highest homicide rates per capita in California.
One of the HMB farms, California Terra Garden (previously Mountain Mushroom Farm) reportedly paid employees $16 to $24 an hour, or about $3,000 a month, and charged $300-a-month rent to eight employee families who lived in mobile homes on the 150-acre property that was leased from the landowners.
The housing was not inspected or licensed by San Mateo county, which is responsible for inspecting farm worker housing; the county reported no complaints about the housing on the farms where the shootings occurred. San Mateo officials promised to try to improve farm worker housing without displacing farm workers.
The shooter and several victims were Chinese immigrants who were 65 or older. According to the NAWS, only three percent of California crop workers are 65 or older. The owners of Terra Garden and several other mushroom farms are Chinese.
Most farm workers live away from the farm where they work in housing that is not owned by their employer. About 12 percent of US crop workers in the NAWS, and 10 percent of California crop workers, lived in employer-provided housing in 2019-20, usually rent free.
There are no reliable data on the share of US farm employers who provide housing to their employees. Some 100,000 agricultural establishments are registered to pay UI taxes, and 500,000 report labor expenses to the COA. At least 10,000 unique employers hire about 300,000 H-2A and perhaps 50,000 US workers employed alongside them, and these employers must provide housing to both H-2A and US workers at no cost.
Housing has traditionally been offered to farm workers as a benefit, a recruitment incentive to entice workers to work and work in sometimes remote locations. Employers sometimes offer family housing to workers who are employed year-round, as with animal operations, supervisors, and equipment operators. Housing for seasonal workers, as to pick apples in Washington, is more often barracks, mobile homes or similar accommodations that are occupied for several months.
H-2A workers, who are in the US an average six months, are offered a wide range of housing, from purpose-built structures that may feature bedrooms for four workers each and shared living and cooking facilities to mobile homes. Almost half of H-2A workers are brought to farms by FLCs, who often house workers in motels by removing the usual furniture and installing bunk beds for four workers per room.
Only five percent of California crop workers live in employer-provided housing; by contrast, two-thirds rent housing from someone other than their employer. The quality of farm worker housing varies significantly, from housing that could be rented to nonfarm workers to housing that is likely acceptable only to foreign workers seeking wages ten times higher than at home.
Health. UC Merced researchers released the results of a survey of 1,200 farm workers in February 2023 that found a third who reported that their health was fair. Among those with chronic health issues, a fifth reported diabetes and/or hypertension. Almost 60 percent said they did not qualify for UI benefits, and over half said they had low food security.
The survey reported that over 90 percent of the workers interviewed rented housing and a third complained of bad-tasting water. A quarter reported that their employers asked them to sometimes work near fields that were sprayed or when there was visible wildfire smoke. Two-thirds of the workers surveyed said they would file charges if their employers violated labor laws. https://clc.ucmerced.edu/)
Planada, a town of 4,000 in a flood plain near Merced that is 90 percent Hispanic, was flooded in January 2023. Most homeowners did not have flood insurance, but eligible residents can receive $41,000 each from FEMA.
Dole’s Fresh Vegetables Division, which had revenue of $1.3 billion in 2022, was sold to an affiliate of Chiquita’s Fresh Express in February 2023 for $293 million.