The Coast News Group
Farmworkers are now eligible for the same overtime benefits extended to all other California hourly workers. Stock photo
Community CommentaryOpinion

Commentary: Protecting farmworkers from criminal wage theft

After the mass shooting in Half Moon Bay in January, the deplorable conditions in which farmworkers live and work and how they are paid came to national attention. One of the points that was highlighted in the subsequent media coverage was the low pay the mushroom farmworkers were receiving.

In his trip to Half Moon Bay, Gov. Gavin Newsom saw firsthand the disgraceful working and living conditions of the farmworkers, noting that many were getting paid as little $9 an hour — well below the state minimum wage of $15.50 an hour.

California is often called the “breadbasket” of the world due to its bountiful harvests. In San Diego County, there are also agriculture and field workers who contribute to the state’s abundance of commodities.

California is able to yield such abundance, in part, due to the hard work of a group that is often unnoticed and unappreciated: farmworkers. Unfortunately, this group, which is so vital to our state, also includes some of our community’s most vulnerable and taken advantage workers. They are often underpaid.

My office has been at the forefront of protecting workers’ rights. In 2020, we started the Workplace Justice Unit to investigate and prosecute employers who steal labor from their employees. Recent legislation made it clear that wage theft can be a felony crime.

Overtime pay is one of the main issues that affects farmworkers. In 2016, historic legislation was signed into law that gradually eliminated the farmworker exception that exempted agricultural workers from receiving overtime pay.

These workers are now eligible for the same overtime benefits extended to all other California hourly workers. This new law was phased in over the course of a seven-year period to give agricultural companies time to adjust their business models to account for increased labor costs.

San Diego County is home to its share of agriculture including avocado groves, flower fields, citrus groves, tomatoes and various vegetable and nursery crops. Here are quick facts for workers, employers, and consumers.

• Farmworkers are entitled to the same protections as all other California workers.

• Farmworkers are entitled to paid 10-minute rest breaks for every four hours of work, and an unpaid meal break of at least 30 minutes if they work more than five hours.

• Failure to pay minimum wage and overtime or to provide meal and rest breaks could amount to criminal wage theft.

• All employers are required to provide a pay stub to their employees upon request regardless of method of payment.

• Workers receiving cash pay are entitled to and should request a copy of their pay stub.

• A review of the pay stub would show the hourly rate, how the worker is classified and that the appropriate taxes are paid.

• Employees should keep records of hours worked, with whom they worked and any written documentation from their employer.

When it comes to which farmworkers would be most affected by employer theft, it can be anyone, but it’s more prevalent in the murky quasi legal industries like marijuana grows. Those who work in large illegal grows are more likely to be victims of wage theft since there is less oversight of an illegal grow.

Although the focus of this column is farmworkers, wage theft laws are applicable to other industries where exploitation is prevalent, including:

• Construction

• Janitorial

• Nursing homes

• Restaurants

• Massage parlors

When wage theft is accompanied by force, fraud or coercion, it can be elevated to the crime of labor trafficking.

If you suspect you have been the victim of wage theft, you can report it directly to our office on our Workplace Justice page at www.sandiegoda.com/workplacejustice, by email at [email protected] or by calling 1-866-402-6044.

As your district attorney, I am committed to protecting all San Diego County workers, especially those in the agricultural industry, from criminal exploitation and wage theft. Only by safeguarding the rights of our most vulnerable populations can we ensure that those who help provide for us all can also provide for themselves and their families.

Summer Stephan is district attorney for San Diego County.