On a September afternoon, 25 workers picking strawberries in South Salinas fields fill up thousands of baskets to the brim. The workers arch over rows of runners and pluck ripe berries, some of which will travel as far as Hong Kong. It’s noon and they have a couple acres more to go.
Maria Alvarez works an average of 10 hours a day, six days a week, doing this task. The 45-year-old mother of two earns $10.50 an hour, plus $1.50 for every box she packs, made up of eight baskets. She says she averages 60 boxes a day.
In a normal week, Alvarez can make up to $1,170 before taxes. If Gov. Jerry Brown signs AB 1066 into law, which would require overtime pay for farm workers who “engage in back-breaking work” for more than eight hours a day or more than 40 hours a week, Alvarez could take home a bigger paycheck.
“It would be great for my family and our quality of life,” Alvarez says as she dries sweat off her forehead. “I’m not sure why overtime pay for us has taken so long to achieve.”
While workers seem excited about the prospect of more money, Monterey County growers say the move will actually slash their pay.
Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, says he’s surveyed local farmers and the overall sentiment is that they will end up offering less hours to avoid paying overtime wages.
“It would not benefit local workers because no one will be willing to pay them overtime after eight hours,” Groot says. “I think [farmworkers] would rather have longer hours and bigger paychecks.”
Lawmakers representing parts of Monterey County voted along party lines on AB 1066. Democratic assemblymen Luis Alejo and Mark Stone, along with State Sen. Bill Monning, voted in favor; State Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, voted against it.
This year growers have seen a trifecta of cost increases for labor thanks to an increased minimum wage, health care costs and now, overtime pay.
“Clearly, this is not beneficial to farmers,” says Jeffrey Michael, an economist at University of the Pacific. “But it should be beneficial to many farmworkers and to farmworkers overall, even if some do see their hours trimmed.”
Michael believes farmers will eventually adjust to these costs and that labor-saving technologies could ultimately replace workers. But in the long run, he says, the economy will be better off even if there are fewer workers.
Lino Garcia, who oversees Alvarez and her coworkers as a supervisor with Los Altos Farms in Salinas, doesn’t think companies can afford to cut back on workers’ hours – or the workforce.
As Garcia stacks 100 boxes packed with strawberries on top of a palette, ready to be shipped to Canada, workers go in and out of the strawberry field on a dirt trail and begin to pile new boxes for the next shipment.
“It’s very hard to find workers right now,” Garcia says as he munches on a strawberry. “I should have 50 people right now, but I have 25 working today.”
With his strawberry-tinted hands, Garcia points to the hundreds of berries yet to be picked. He says the small crew has fallen behind schedule and have just one more work day left in the week.