Nation’s first mandatory farmworker hazard pay gains approval
Leaders of Coachella, California, mandated a $4-per-hour pay increase for local food workers. They included ag workers at the last minute.
The Coachella city council on Wednesday night adopted an emergency ordinance requiring that farm employers pay workers a hazard premium of $4 per hour, effective immediately for the next six months. Nearly one year into the pandemic, this move marks the first instance of mandatory hazard pay for farm workers.
“There have been these ordinances that apply to grocery store workers, but this is the first one I know about passed by a city that applies to farm workers,” said Philip Martin, a professor emeritus of ag and resource economics at University of California, Davis.
Workers in other essential sectors including restaurants, grocery stores, and pharmacies are also covered by the ordinance. The legislation—which applies only to businesses with at least 300 employees—is part of a broad patchwork of local efforts to ensure that workers receive some form of compensation for the health risks associated with public-facing work during the pandemic. In the spring of 2020, numerous grocery store chains, food processing plants, and other employers voluntarily instituted per-hour bonuses for workers, but many phased them out last summer. Across California, cities have taken it upon themselves to require hazard pay, though most initiatives so far have focused on grocery workers.
“Farm workers are one of the most critical groups that were designated essential but unfortunately continue to be treated as anything but essential. It’s very much appropriate that they be provided this.”
“Agricultural, grocery, restaurant, and retail pharmacy workers working during the COVID-19 emergency merit additional compensation because they are performing hazardous duty due to the significant risk of exposure to the COVID-19 virus,” the ordinance reads.
President Joe Biden has called on employers to retroactively provide frontline workers, including those who “stock shelves, harvest crops, and care for the sick,” with back hazard pay through the present, though the status of that ask is unclear amid ongoing Covid-19 relief bill discussions.
United Farm Workers, the country’s largest farmworker union and a prominent advocate for worker protections in California, welcomed the move.
“We’ve been talking to council members from Coachella before they even introduced this,” said Armando Elenes, secretary treasurer of the organization. “Farm workers are one of the most critical groups that were designated essential but unfortunately continue to be treated as anything but essential. It’s very much appropriate that they be provided this.”
Workers in other essential sectors including restaurants, grocery stores, and pharmacies are also covered by the ordinance.
Farms have been a common site of Covid-19 outbreaks. Workers often struggle to find personal protective equipment (PPE) due to shortages, and many seasonal guest workers live in shared housing, where social distancing is difficult or impossible. As of Thursday, at least 12,787 farm workers have tested positive for Covid-19, and 43 have died, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network’s outbreak tracker.
Farm employers have criticized Coachella’s legislation as costly, and suggested that a regional hazard pay mandate might be more equitable than a city-specific one. Roughly 8,000 farmworkers live in Coachella Valley, and more than 30 percent of them live within the city itself, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“It’s not a level playing field,” said Ted Johnson, chief executive of Woodspur Farms. “I have competitors right outside the city. It’s not fair. If everyone had to do it—hey, great.”
The legislation specifically prohibits employers from reducing workers’ wages to make up for the cost of the hazard pay mandate. You can read it in full here.