Americans have long romanticized the agricultural industry and the work it entails. Even in grittier depictions, think Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the farming experience is linked to a simpler, more traditional way of life, where community and family is able to transcend the social injustices present. The work is hard, yes, and the lifestyle is not for the faint of heart. But the experience is inextricably linked to the narrative of the American Dream. It’s a folksy-familiar story arc that conjures a sense of home, belonging.
And beyond previous cultural associations, the foodie movement doesn’t help. In all parts of the country, foodie-consumers demand an exceptional quality from their food; grass-fed, pasture-raised, antibiotic free, clear of dyes, no artificial additives. While there’s little to argue against the slow food movement, it’s important to note that the vast majority of produce grown in the United States is is produced under much different circumstances. And its producer, the farmer, carries an equally romanticized weight.
Just as in Dodge’s famous ‘Farmer’ commercial; we may be inclined to picture the rugged, middle-class man, rising early to milk the cows. In reality, America’s farm workers are 90% latino, 80% immigrant, and 100% underpaid.
Despite the TV commercials and the rise of agri-tourism (ie. pick your own fruit orchards) these farm workers are not handpicking your organic raspberries then walking to the open-air market to sell them for 7.00/pint. The vegetables they pick are the vegetables that the majority of Americans consume. They end up on cafeteria trays and lie waiting in the freezer at the grocery store. They make up the food at our restaurants. They allow the rest of us to pursue higher educations and professional jobs.
In short, they’re not the vegetables that are not romanticized. And neither is the farmworker’s occupation. For decades, the farmworker has worked as quietly as he has arrived. Many of these workers are undocumented; and therefore unable to lobby for additional rights.
But all of that stands to change with Governor Brown’s latest ruling. In early September, Jerry Brown signed a historic legislation that will offer overtime pay to millions of workers in California. Brown’s law aims to amend what should have been amended decades prior.
Since the early 20th century, farm workers suffered under an unfair restriction written into FDR’s Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. This act granted overtime protection to the majority of America’s workers yet excluded farm workers in an attempt appease the powerful Southern democrats at the time of the signing. While the rational choice would be to standardize this policy nationwide, it’s with great hope that Brown’s
Current legislation provides overtime pay to farmworkers who work more than 10 hours in a day, or more than 60 hours in a week. With Brown’s latest rule, farmworkers will receive overtime after the standard procedure of 40-hours a week. This rule will affect millions of workers and will begin its gradual phase down starting in 2019 with an estimated target date in 2022.
Governor Brown’s decision follows his recent legislation surrounding the state’s minimum wage. Under his new rule, that will gradually increase the minimum wage of all employees to $15/hour. Brown has voiced his opinion on the matter several times and describes both events as a “a matter of economic justice.”
The law was met with fiery backlash from several groups that cite the probability that farmers will be forced to hire additional employees, thus limiting the hours available to work. They also warn of the inevitable rise in food costs.
While the law will certainly bring a wave of change to the entire industry, it also closes the unfair loophole that has restricted so many of America’s hardest working employees.