Lauro Barajas

“Growers are working with us,” says Lauro Barajas, regional director of the UFW, of Monterey County's advisory for farmworkers during Covid-19. “It’s cooperation for the good of the workers, food safety and the public.” Assemblymember Robert Rivas' staff expects his bill to incorporate Monterey County's advisory.

Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, was raised in farmworker housing, and in his first term as a member of the Assembly, has made a custom of defending farmworker rights.

He'd already introduced five separate farmworker-related bills earlier this session, which he's now updating and recasting as a Covid-19 relief package for farmworkers.

"Gov. Gavin Newsom has rightly designated agricultural workers as an essential infrastructure workforce. But as we ask our farmworkers to continue working through the Covid-19 pandemic, we must take action to protect their health, safety, and economic security," Rivas said in a statement. "Protecting farmworkers is not just our moral duty, it is also critical for preventing disruptions to our food supply.”

The bills in the package include AB 2164, the Telehealth Services Act, which would create a grant program within the State Department of Health Care Services to try telehealth in health centers and rural health clinics. (Ironically, Covid-19 may be fast-tracking in real time what this bill would do at a slower speed, by forcing many medical institutions to try telehealth.)

AB 3155, the Moderate Income Housing Act, would streamline the process for permitting small housing developments (10 units or fewer). (This one applies to moderate-income housing projects in general, not just farmworkers.)

AB 2165, the Access to Justice and Electronic Court Filings Act, would make some technical changes to e-filing policies and fee-setting for electronic filing; it's meant to help rural residents in particular who don't live near courthouses, but applies to everyone.

AB 2956, the Agriculture Labor Shortage and Overtime Act, creates a credit for taxes associated an existing overtime law that requires employers to pay time-and-a-half for hours worked in excess of a 55-hour week or nine-and-a-half-hour day. "Currently, competition in the marketplace from other states and countries that do not yet provide overtime compensation for farm employees creates a competitive disadvantage to California’s farmers and ranchers who must utilize employees during these overtime periods," the bill language states.

But the big change comes with AB 2915, the Farmworker Covid-19 Health and Safety Act. The bill as it's currently written is about sexual harassment protections for farmworkers. Rivas plans to what's called a "gut-and-amend"—take the existing bill, scrap the language and replace it something new so that it can still move through the committee process on schedule. 

The specifics haven't been written yet, but Rivas' staff offer a rough outline of what to expect it will include: expanding paid sick leave for farmworkers from three days to two weeks; providing supplemental hazard pay to farmworkers; direct subsidies to childcare providers who provide care to farmworkers' children; codify existing Cal/OSHA guidance on farmworker protections and personal protective equipment related to Covid-19; funding for an information bilingual campaign to educate farmworkers about safety; temporary housing to mitigate crowding in existing farmworker housing to enable social distancing.

That outline approximates what Rivas called for in a letter he sent on March 24 to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.

Spencer Jones, interim chief of staff/legislative director for Rivas, says it's too soon to know what specific safety guidelines the bill will include, but he expects it to draw from an advisory for agricultural workers that was passed in Monterey County with assistance from five trade associations
 
"We view it as a model for what we'd like to see at the state level," Jones says. "It's a pretty robust set of guidance. As an advisory, it doesn't have much teeth, if any. The way we can give it teeth and more longevity is to put it into statute." 

"The package builds on five existing bills," four of which won't need to be changed," Jones says. 

One change is they'll likely all get an urgency clause added, which means if they pass this session, they would take effect in July of 2020, rather than next year, which is the standard.

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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