ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
California's legislature has passed a bill to make farm workers eligible for overtime pay if they work more than eight hours a day or more than 40 hours a week. That's the norm for workers in many other industries.
But if California's governor signs the bill into law, it would be a first for farm workers in the U.S. Capital Public Radio's Julia Mitric reports from Sacramento.
JULIA MITRIC, BYLINE: Twenty five miles west of Sacramento, Maria Diaz sorts green bell peppers along an outdoor conveyor belt. She and a team discard leaves and stems as quickly as they can before peppers are swept away by a mini roller coaster onto a tractor trailer.
MARIA DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).
MITRIC: She says these peppers aren't for eating. They're for seed. Diaz is a single parent of three. She's one of roughly 800,000 farm workers in California. And she says the overtime will be very good for her.
DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).
MITRIC: She says growers should pay overtime after eight hours. The reason this new law is important is that two-thirds of U.S. fruits and nuts and one-third of vegetables come from California. Higher labor costs could mean higher food bills, no matter where you live in the country.
The new rules would also mean overtime pay for farm laborers who work more than 40 hours in a week. But alfalfa farmer Jeff Merwin says his employees will end up losing money.
JEFF MERWIN: They're not being told the story. What they're being fed is this utopian line of - it'll be great. You'll get all this overtime 'cause they'll pay it. You know they'll pay it. How?
MITRIC: Right now, Merwin's employees work about 60 hours at straight time. He says he can't afford to pay overtime. So he'll just have to cut their hours back or find a way to do the same work in less time.
MERWIN: And I'm not the Grinch here. All I'm saying is, again, it's economics 101. If the money's not there, you can't pay it. And the money is not there.
PHILIP MARTIN: No one has the data on exactly who works how many hours.
MITRIC: Philip Martin is professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis. He says that's the big problem with predicting how new overtime rules will affect farm workers and their employers.
MARTIN: So in a sense, we're making policy based on assumptions which may or may not be true.
MITRIC: Right now, Martin says, California is a crazy patchwork when it comes to regulating farm labor. Farm workers are excluded from certain rights. In other cases, they receive special protections.
Martin says the first step in coming up with a more comprehensive solution is updating the picture of farm workers from dustbowl-era "The Grapes Of Wrath" to the 21st century.
MARTIN: It's a different story than it - than many people have in their mind from the days when most farm workers were single men who lived on the farm where they worked and lived in dorms and things like that. That still exists. But it's very rare.
MITRIC: If the governor signs the bill, the new overtime rules would be phased in over the next six years in California. For NPR News, I'm Julia Mitric in Sacramento.