Proposition 37 and Assembly Bills 2676 and 2346

Several TFF subscribers have emailed me in the last month or so asking about my position on Proposition 37, the voter initiative that would require all products containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to be labeled.

It turns out it doesn’t matter what I think.  I am on the Board of Directors of two very different agricultural advocacy organization which have taken opposing official positions on Prop. 37.  Whatever my opinion on the issue, as a member of these boards, I am required to publicly support the position taken by the majority of the board.  Since one organization supported the measure and the other opposed it and I am legally prohibited from disagreeing with either of them, I can’t even say which organizations they are.  I did point out that in both cases, the organizational bylaws clearly failed in envisioning potential problems with the Political Endorsements clause that they both use.  I offered to resign from both boards but the offer was declined.  So I abstained from both votes.

I believe I am still free to be amused at this situation, which points out pretty well how any and all rules, regulations, laws, etc. are unable to imagine all the potential outcomes that might result after they are implemented.  Which leads me directly into my next politically themed topic.  This week, the California Legislature will vote on two bills specifically targeting perceived abuses by agricultural employers of their workers.

The first bill, AB2346, would change the rules governing overtime for farm workers.  Current law in California requires overtime pay when employees work more than 10 hours in a day or 60 hours in a week.  (Most states do not have any overtime rules for agriculture.)  These rules are based on the fact that farm workers do not work a consistent weekly schedule over the 12 months of the year, but rather have hours that vary seasonally.  They have made sense for 50 years and still do.

The new law would set a 40 hour workweek for farm workers.  The bill’s author believes that current laws discriminate against farm laborers.  While this idea apparently makes sense to the urban legislators who support it, the reality is that it will dramatically reduce the incomes of workers in agriculture — many of whom make up to two thirds of their income during the six months of the principal growing season in California — or force them to work a second job to maintain their current income.

The second bill, AB2676, would implement very specific rules for practices that farmers would have to follow to protect their workers from heat illness.  The bill, written by lawyers from Los Angeles, would be essentially impossible to comply with for a farm like ours.  It imagines farm fields to be static workplaces like offices or factories, where employees work in the same place all day long.  If someone were to walk more than 10 feet away from a water cooler, for example, our farm would be in violation of the rules.  The punishment for violations:  stiff fines as well as jail.

Current law on heat safety for outdoor workplaces was revamped by California Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA) in 2005.  It sets practical but firm rules for practices that employers must follow to protect workers during hot weather, procedures to investigate injuries or fatalities, and stiff fines for violations.  The agency has been vigorously inspecting farmers during hot weather — our farm was visited by inspectors last year during a July heat wave.  Anyone who believes that Cal-OSHA is treating farm employers too leniently has clearly never witnessed one of these inspections.

Legislators who wrote the new bill feel that Cal-OSHA is not strict enough.  For example, it they take issue with the scientifically proven fact that people acclimate to their environment.  The new bill, for example, would provide the same definition of “extreme heat” for a worker picking strawberries in Monterey, where 85 degrees in July is a very hot day; to someone harvesting tomatoes in the Central Valley, where the same temperature would be considered normal.

What the urban legislators who pen these type of bills fail to realize is that farmers across the state respond to their efforts in the most direct way possible to reduce their risk: eliminating workers.  Every year, more and more farms find more and more ways to mechanize jobs and eliminate workers —  giant organic producer Earthbound Farm recently purchased specially designed robots that will fill clamshells with salad greens, eliminating hundreds of jobs.

Mechanization always involves a capital investment that may take a decade to pay for itself.  Perhaps there are jobs that have not been replaced by machines because it would take 15 years to recoup the investment?  All of a sudden, the prospect of a year in jail might push some employers to make that investment.  After all, robots and other machines don’t need to drink water and don’t mind the heat.  And unlike humans, they work 24 hours a day without overtime pay.

Legislation like these two bills will primarily impact small farms like Terra Firma, which are too small and too diversified to spend millions on eliminating workers with machines.  If you are a TFF customer, it is almost certain that your Assemblymember and your state Senator will be voting for these two bills — perhaps as you are reading this.  And yet the Bay Area is one of the parts of the state where people are most supportive of small scale, direct-to-retail farms that will be most impacted.  If you think that politicians are failing to imagine the unintended consequences of this type of legislation, you should let them know.

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