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January 2001, Volume 7, Number 1

California: Wages, Health, ES, Housing

Minimum Wages. California's Industrial Welfare Commission boosted the minimum wage from $5.75 to $6.25 an hour on January 1, 2001, and to $6.75 on January 1, 2002. About one million California workers earn the minimum wage or a bit more. The IWC extended the exemption of H-2A shepherds, who earn at least $900 a month and are on call 24 hours a day, from state minimum wage laws while it conducts a study of the issue of shepherds' pay.

Farmers complained. One said "I think California is going to minimum-wage itself out of the ag business," suggesting that higher minimum wages will reduce farm profits. Others suggested the reaction would be to use alternatives to hand labor: "The higher the cost of hand labor, the more inclined I may be to use herbicides." The federal minimum wage is $5.15 per hour; Washington and Oregon have a $6.50 minimum wage, and seven other states, including Alaska and Hawaii, have minimum wages above the federal minimum.

Employers and employees will each pay 6.2 percent of their earnings in social security taxes in 2001, up to $80,400; employers and employees also pay 1.45 percent for Medicare on all earnings.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported that 22 of the 35 sewing factories in Los Angeles previously cited for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act were still engaged in "repeat and willful" violations of minimum wage, overtime and record-keeping provisions of federal labor law; some workers had not been paid back wages as DOL ordered in 1998. DOL levied $272,000 in civil money penalties and ordered the 22 firms to provide $628,000 in back pay to workers.

Health. The California Institute for Rural Studies in November 2000 released a report, "Suffering in Silence: A Report on the Health of California's Agricultural Workers," that highlighted the "unmet health needs" of many farm workers. For more information: ) The survey was conducted after a comprehensive census in seven communities found all sleeping places and then interviews were conducted with a sample of the "households" located to determine who did farm work during the previous 12 months.

Some 965 persons were interviewed and data were obtained on about 3,000 persons in sample households. The demographic characteristics of the workers interviewed were similar to those of the NAWS for California, that is, the median age was 32 (compared to 30) and 33 percent were women (compared to 18 percent).

The workers interviewed were in remarkably poor health, given their youth. Many of those screened had high blood pressure and high serum cholesterol levels, and 81 percent of the men and 76 percent of the women surveyed were overweight. Rates of obesity- generally 20 percent or more above the desirable weight-- were also higher among farm workers. About 20 percent of US men and 25 percent of US women are obese, but the farmworker health survey found that 28 percent of farm worker men and 37 percent of farm worker women were obese. Many of the workers reported eating fatty, salty, sugary or otherwise unhealthful foods.

Most farm workers do not receive health insurance through their employers and, because half or more are unauthorized, many do not see doctors or dentists regularly: 69 percent of those surveyed did not have health insurance and 50 percent had not been to a US doctor or dentist during the previous 12 months.

California's Farmworker Housing Grant Program will provide $46 million in farm worker housing grants in 2000-01 for homeownership, rental rehabilitation and rental construction, up sharply from $3.5 million. Most of the new farm worker housing is expected to be provided by nonprofit organizations, not farm employers.

ES/FARMS. California's Employment Development Department (EDD) usually receives about 40,000 requests a year from farmers seeking workers, and places about 12,000 workers a year in farm jobs. The state has an automated job-matching system, CalJOBS, and in Fall 2000 reported that 2,000 farm employers and 77,000 farm workers were registered in the CalJOBS system.

However, EDD believes that few farm employers and workers can be matched with CalJOBS, so it is launching a new effort, Farm & Agricultural Recruitment Management System (FARMS) that will involve Agricultural Business Representatives (ABRs) working with farm employers to share information about farm labor needs in a particular area. This means that ABRs will collect information on the number of workers needed for each task in each crop in an area, and use this information to assist workers seeking farm jobs. EDD expects the program to "reduce migration and increase the number of weeks that workers are employed during the year."

Growers welcomed FARMS, asserting that the computer and call-based CalJOBS system did not serve agriculture. When implemented as a pilot project, farmers are expected to disclose to ABRs their acreage, labor needs, and wage information, and the ABRs will work with local workers to help them shift between farm jobs. EDD would thus be providing the job-brokering services that growers associations and union hiring halls sometimes provided in the past, and that farm labor contractors often provide today.

Farm employers also welcomed an announcement that EDD will soon begin checking the SSNs of workers seeking benefits, including UI payments- unauthorized workers are generally not eligible for UI benefits. EDD promised to change the recall process for unemployed workers drawing UI benefits, promising to inform unemployed workers if employers are seeking workers through EDD. EDD director Michael Bernick said the goal "is stabilizing the workforce by helping workers move between crops throughout the year… meeting growers' workforce needs at key times of year and at all skill levels."

The daughter and brother-in-law of Stockton farm labor contractor Luis Bautista pleaded guilty in October 2000 to charges that they conspired with Bautista "to regularly, repeatedly, and intentionally hire illegal aliens." INS undercover agents were hired by Bautista, and they taped him saying that it did not matter that they were not authorized to work in the US.

Housing. The year 2001 may be the year of farm worker housing-California approved a record $46 million in funds to build and rehabilitate farm worker housing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program is providing in Section 514 Farm Labor
Housing Loans ($23.5 million) and Section 516 Farm Labor Housing Grants for Off-Farm Housing($10 million).

The Los Angeles Times January 7, 2001 emphasized that there is a shortage of housing in many areas of the state, including agricultural areas such as Napa, which is having spillover effects in agricultural areas as workers employed in, for example, Silicon Valley commute from lower-cost farming towns and cities. The article attributes the affordable housing crunch to rapid job growth in the 1990s in cities with slow-growth policies. The California Association of Realtors found that, in October 2000, only 30 percent of California households could afford to buy the median-priced homes in the areas where they live, and that 75 percent of renters spend more than the recommended maximum 30 percent of their income on rent.

Ergonomics/Pesticides. DOL's Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued new ergonomics rules effective January 16, 2001 that require employers to redesign work stations for 27 million workers whose jobs involve repetitive motions and heavy lifting. Ergonomics, the study of how to adapt work conditions to the physical capacity of workers, aims to reduce workplace injuries.

OSHA says that 600,000 people a year lose some time from their jobs because of injuries and afflictions like carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitus and back strain, which stem from working conditions. The ergonomics rule would require employers to fix workplace or job conditions if they receive a valid complaint of a work-caused musculoskeletal disorder.

Employers sued to block the new rules, complaining that they would increase costs by requiring work stations to be redesigned and by encouraging workers to file workers' compensation claims. OSHA estimated that the rule would cost employers $4.5 billion a year to implement, but save employers $9 billion a year in reduced workers compensation and medical costs.

The UFW filed suit on behalf of 28 Earlimart residents against Wilbur-Ellis Company in San Francisco in November 2000, one year after the company applied metam sodium fumigant in a field a quarter-mile from Earlimart. The workers applying the chemical failed to turn on the sprinklers to seal the fumigant into the soil, and it escaped, drifting into Earlimart and affecting 30 residents. Wilbur-Ellis was fined $150,000 in September by the state Department of Pesticide Regulation and ordered to pay medical costs for the victims for two years.

California farmers applied about 203 million pounds of pesticides in 1999, down from 214 million pounds in 1998, largely because of better weather. For more information:

Rebecca Trounson, John Johnson, "Housing Strain Unravels Community Ties," Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2001. Kate Campbell, "Ag labor program promises greater workforce stability," Ag Alert, November 8, 2000.