Overtime for farm workers: Can we finally get it right?


It is not often that one gets a “do-over” in life. Even rarer is the opportunity to get a do-over in a situation which not only impacts you, but also thousands of people—and also undoes one part of the legacy of Jim Crow racism. And yet, that very opportunity presents itself.

At this moment the California State Assembly is considering a bill which will mandate overtime pay for agricultural workers. These are workers who do some of the hardest jobs, in the worst conditions in this country. The work of picking the fruits and vegetables which end up in our grocery stores, and on our tables, is back-breaking and dangerous. Working in the heat of the sun for hours on end does leads to sickness and sometimes death. Yet, these workers are not paid extra for the overtime hours they put in.

Why, you might ask yourself, do agricultural workers not get the same rights in the workplace that the rest of the workforce does? When FDR began to amass the coalition which would pass the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, Southern Senators, Senators from the Jim Crow, slave-owning former Confederacy, refused to sign on unless worker protections for domestic workers, and agricultural workers were not included. It was no coincidence that these workers were almost all African-Americans.

The country, and our state, has begun to address these injustices. There is now a domestic workers’ bill of rights, and agricultural workers are now paid minimum wage (which will gradually increase to $15 an hour). The final hill is overtime wages. This is the last vestige of this racist holdover.

Our tradition teaches us that a “complete repentance”—a tshuvah gemurah—occurs when a person returns to the place where they sinned, and they retain the same mental and physical strength that they had when they sinned, and they are interacting with the same people they did when the original sin occurred—and yet they act differently. Assembly Member Richard Bloom is ripe for complete repentance.

When this bill (then numbered AB 2757) came up for a vote on June 2, Bloom did not vote. The bill failed 38 votes to 35. Three votes stood between rectifying a century of injustice and letting it continue. However, the bill was reintroduced (now known as: AB 1066 – Phase-In Overtime for Agricultural Workers Act of 2016) and will be voted on by the end of August.

We have the opportunity to undo a historic wrong, and to allow farm workers the ability to earn enough money to support themselves and their families with dignity. It is incumbent upon us to make sure that Richard Bloom knows that we are counting on him to walk in the path of the righteous, to undo his scandalous abstention of two months ago, and to vote in favor of AB 1066).

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen PhD is the Rabbi in Residence for Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice in Southern California