Democratic bill would ensure farmworkers get overtime pay after years of being ignored

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Lawmakers say it's time to end the racist exclusion of farmworkers from the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.

House Democrats have reintroduced legislation to ensure farmworkers are compensated fairly for overtime work, an attempt to confront existing labor laws that have excluded them from such rights for more than 80 years.

The "Fairness for Farm Workers Act," which would compensate farmworkers for any overtime exceeding 40 hours per week, was introduced on Thursday. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), who co-sponsored the effort, said the measure would amend the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act and bring to an end discriminatory provisions preventing farmworkers from receiving overtime pay.

"Although we've praised farm workers throughout the pandemic for their essential work, our current labor laws don’t reflect the important role they play in picking the food we eat on our tables every day," Grijalva said in a statement. "It's long past time that we remedy the historic racism that excluded farm workers from the FLSA in the first place and finally pay them the wages they deserve."

United Farm Workers, the nation's largest farmworkers union, has spoken out in support of the bill, saying it would protect vulnerable workers from being abused by their employers.

"Farm workers are far too often invisible. They live and work in rural isolation. They aren't available to meet except in late evening or on Sunday. This country needs to see and hear from the people who have kept our domestic food supply safe and intact," Elizabeth Strater, the union's director of strategic campaigns, told the American Independent Foundation. "Overtime at its core is a health and safety protection, to safeguard employers from working the human body beyond healthy endurance."

She added, "The human body is not meant to perform limitless grueling labor."

Grijalva introduced House versions of the bill in 2018 and 2019. Then-California Sen. Kamala Harris introduced companion bills in the Senate. At the time, Harris called on Congress to right the wrongs of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which had denied farmworkers overtime pay for decades.

"It is absolutely unconscionable that many farm workers — people who often work over 12 hours a day in the hot sun — do not receive overtime pay for the hard work they do to put food on the tables of American families," Harris said then.

Added Grijalva, "It's unacceptable that so many live in poverty, and it’s time for farm workers to receive the wages they deserve. By amending the law, we are remedying decades of economic inequality rooted in racism and ensuring that the Fair Labor Standards Act truly lives up to its name for all American workers."

The Depression-era labor law has roots in slavery and the exploitation of Black laborers.

As the website the Counter noted in January, the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act established the 40-hour work week as well as overtime pay, but exempted farmworkers to appease lawmakers from the South, which relied heavily on the Black population for cheap labor. President Franklin D. Roosevelt needed those lawmakers' votes to pass his New Deal legislation, Quartz wrote in October.

"This is the very definition of structural racism," Lisa Zucker, the New York Civil Liberties Union's legislative attorney told the Counter. "Generations of farmers have built their business plan on the underpayment of workers."

More than eight decades later, many states have kept the outdated labor law in place, cementing the oppressive exclusion of overtime pay for farmworkers.

"No industry should feel entitled to limitless labor from their employees. The exclusion of farmworkers from fundamental protections like overtime is a racist leftover from the Jim Crow era when the Fair Labor Standards Act was written," Strater said in an email.

On May 3, the House Education and Labor Committee's Subcommittee on Workforce Protections held a hearing on the exclusion of farmworkers from the Fair Labor Standards Act. Subcommittee Chair Alma Adams (R-NC) said the country must confront its legacy of racism to "forge a more equitable future."

"Following the abolition of slavery, Black Americans, a majority of whom lived in the South, were concentrated in agricultural and domestic jobs — with little to no pay — in order to preserve the profitable economy that had been built on the backs of slaves," Adams said. "In other words, by excluding jobs held by Black and Brown workers from basic worker protections, the FLSA inserted institutional racism into federal wage and hour law."

President Joe Biden previously endorsed overtime legislation for farmworkers. And at the state level, officials have already begun taking action to provide farmworkers with overtime pay.

On Tuesday, Democratic Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bipartisan bill to make agricultural workers eligible for overtime pay. The same day, Biden lauded the move in a statement, saying, "Agricultural workers in Washington and across the country have helped carry our nation through this pandemic — working long hours, often at great personal risk, to meet the needs of their communities and keep America healthy and well-nourished. These overtime protections will ensure that agricultural workers in Washington are paid for all of the vital work they do."

California was the first state in the country to pass an overtime pay law for farmworkers in 2016. Oregon, Colorado, and Maine lawmakers have introduced similar bills that are currently making their way through their respective legislatures.

"California is already phasing in overtime equity. Seeing the bipartisan victory in the state of Washington last week, that’s two of the biggest agricultural economies in the country," Strater said. "Add in the promising progress in states like Oregon and Colorado is a hopeful sign that this country is at a tipping point of finally acknowledging and addressing these historic wrongs."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.