Overdue for Overtime

by Julie Kurtz

A new California law just enacted the most revolutionary labor standards since the creation of the 40-hour work week.  What is it?  Well, it’s the 40-hour work week. But will it improve equality? Will it impact the cost of your food? Will equitable farm labor make your vegetables healthier? And will the new law change the curriculum at Friedman?

On Monday September 12th, California Governor Jerry Brown signed monumental legislation that should be of interest to all Friedman students. California Assembly Bill 1066 will require that agricultural workers be paid overtime for working more than eight hours in a day or forty hours in a week. While this may seem like a no-brainer, the current standard requires workers to work 10 hours/day and 60 hours/week before earning their overtime pay. The changes will be incremental starting in 2019, with full realization of the law by 2022 for most farms and 2025 for farms with fewer than 25 employees.

We take for granted the forty-hour week as a cornerstone of American work ethics, representing fair working hours and honoring the dignity of work. Many industries had a forty-hour workweek in place well before the 20th century. In the heat of the workers’ rights movements, victory came with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, guaranteeing a maximum work hour week—or overtime compensation when forty hours were surpassed.

However, agricultural workers were exempt.

As were domestic workers.

In the 1930s African-Americans were disproportionately employed in agricultural and domestic labor. President Roosevelt signed the Fair Labors Standards Act knowing it was a compromise with Southern Congressmen who had a vested interest in excluding black employees to preserve the plantation-style economy of sharecroppers and black domestic workers.

While there are practical reasons why agricultural workers remained excluded from the labor rights that most Americans enjoy, mostly related to seasonality, it is clear that enormous power differentials persist between farm laborers and farm owners. In California more than 90% of farm laborers are Latino, and 80% are immigrants. Given the long history of labor exploitation in US Agriculture, what does it mean that the agricultural giant California has set this precedent of equality? Will the new overtime legislation be effective? Or are there loopholes that will inevitably allow the continued overworking of farm laborers? Will other states follow in California’s footsteps? And finally, to bring things back home, why should California Assembly Bill 1066 be discussed at 150 Harrison Avenue?

One of Friedman’s great strengths is our integrated approach to food. Friedman extends into every corner of the food system, from cutting edge nutritional science, consumer behavior, and food policy economics, to the environmental impacts of agriculture. Our system-wide approach enables Friedman to engage one of the most complex challenges on the planet: how to feed ourselves. But there is a realm where our reach rarely extends: labor.

I came to Friedman in part because we ask questions like “Is this tomato that is grown in nutrient-rich biodynamic soils healthier than a conventional tomato? Is it healthier for our bodies? Is it healthier for the land and for the sustainability of agriculture?” I’m thrilled that my education is helping me answer and provide insight to those questions. I’m less certain where on this campus we can ask: “Is this tomato that was grown by an equitably-paid farmer who has access to healthcare, leisure time, and education, as healthy as a tomato grown by a farmer who works 12-hour days, sees her children only briefly at dawn and night, and lacks a nutritious diet, time for education, and access to medical attention?”

Can healthy food come from an exploited workforce?

Second-year students from Friedman’s Agricultural Science & Policy II course recognized this gap in our education and knowledge. We do not feel equipped to evaluate and understand the impact of California’s new law in the grander context of the food system. As policy students we frequently discuss the “inputs” that go into our food: technology, land, and fertilizers. Labor is another input. But labor is people. We need a different set of tools to consider the migrant harvesters, the meat processors, the truck drivers, and the line cooks—the people without whom nutrition students would have nothing to study in the first place.

Fortunately we have a supportive faculty who has recognized the hole, and are working alongside us to bridge the gap. In fact, the entire Friedman community is invited to help bridge the gap:

  • In October the Friedman Seminar Committee will meet to determine Spring 2017 Seminar speakers and they will consider agricultural labor experts. To that end, students are invited (as they always are) to send speaker suggestions to Christian.Peters@tufts.edu.
  • Due to student requests, two AFE core courses (Nutr215 and Nutr333) will dedicate classroom time to address farm labor and the new California law. Interested students are invited to attend those lecture and discussion dates, and can email Timothy.Griffin@tufts.edu for more information.
  • As Friedman administration seeks to hire new faculty, we urge consideration of candidates with expertise in farm labor, food system law and justice.
  • Second-year AFE student Caitlin Joseph is spearheading a student-directed course on Agricultural Labor Policy and Justice in Spring 2017. Students interested in joining should contact her at Caitlin.Joseph@tufts.edu.

California AB 1066 did not materialize out of nowhere. How does its signing fit into the broader picture of dismantling inequality in the food system? As Friedman students and faculty, can we satisfactorily discuss nourishment if we are not equally concerned with the welfare of those who bring food to our table? What models exist to dismantle this systemic oppression? What impacts will those models have on the environment, on the economy, on nutrition, on academia, and mostly pertinently, on the labor force? And how can we integrate those models into the Friedman curriculum?

Julie Kurtz is in her second semester of the AFE program. She landed at Friedman after acting professionally in San Francisco, practicing Emergency Medicine in Minnesota, and farming in Bolivia.

 

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