Many new laws impact farmers on January 1
December 19, 2007 AgAlert, California Farm Bureau Federation
By Ching Lee Assistant Editor
From higher wages to air quality, a number of new laws impacting California farmers and ranchers will take effect in the new year.
Of the 964 bills that made it to the governor's desk this year, 750 were signed into law and 214 were vetoed.
Perhaps the most significant piece of legislation affecting California agriculture is one that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger approved in 2006. Assembly Bill 1835 increased the state minimum wage this year from $6.75 to $7.50 an hour. The second phase of this legislation takes effect starting Jan. 1, when the minimum wage will jump to $8 an hour.
California will be tied with Massachusetts for the highest state minimum wage in the nation. Before 2007, the last state minimum wage increase also happened in two consecutive years--from $6.25 an hour in 2001 to $6.75 an hour in 2002.
"Yet another rise in California's minimum wage makes it even harder for the state's farmers to compete with agricultural employers elsewhere who aren't subject to such a high requirement," said California Farm Bureau Federation Associate Counsel Carl Borden. "It further tips the playing field against our already hard-pressed producers of food and fiber.
"But employers do need to ensure that all covered employees--whether paid a salary, an hourly wage, by commission or piece rate--get the higher of the state or federal minimum wage for each hour worked," Borden added. "And, the hike also raises the minimum monthly salary an administrative, executive or professional employee must get to be exempt from overtime-pay, minimum-wage and time-record laws."
With the upcoming increase in the minimum hourly wage, the minimum salary for exempt employees will be $2,773.33 per month.
The federal minimum wage has been $5.85 an hour since July 24 and will be raised to $6.55 an hour on July 24, 2008 and $7.25 an hour on July 24, 2009.
On a related note, also effective Jan. 1, employers will no longer be able to use an employee's entire Social Security number as the employee identification number on pay stubs. Employers may, however, print no more than the last four digits of an employee's Social Security Number on pay stubs or other similar documents. Labor Code section 226 was changed due to identity theft concerns.
Another measure approved by the governor this year that could affect how San Joaquin Valley farmers and ranchers are regulated with regards to air quality is Senate Bill 719.
This legislation increases the size of the San Joaquin Valley Air Board from 11 to 15 members by adding two members who would represent the large cities in the air district and two others with medical or scientific expertise in the health effects of air pollution. The latter two will be appointed by the governor and must be approved by the Senate.
Cynthia Cory, CFBF director of environmental affairs, said these members have great impact on the air board's votes and the farming community should encourage qualified candidates to apply for these positions.
"It's important that these public members that will be appointed by the governor be knowledgeable of air pollution challenges in the valley and know how to approach them fairly," she said. "We need to encourage those kinds of candidates to be involved."
To help local governments recover costs associated with abandoned garbage on private or public property, AB 679, which also takes effect in the new year, increases the fines for individuals convicted of illegal dumping.
Under the new law, illegal dumpers will pay an additional $100 for an infraction and $200 for a misdemeanor, on top of any other penalty or fine imposed. The funds collected from the additional fines will go to the local governments' illegal dumping fund to offset costs incurred for the prevention of illegal dumping.
A new law that affects North Coast ranchers who ship their livestock out of state is SB 773, which will allow longer semi-trailers access to certain sections of Highway 101 in Del Norte, Humboldt and Mendocino counties that were previously prohibited.
Specifically, the new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, extends the kingpin-to-rear axle length from 40 feet to 43 feet of a truck tractor-semi-trailer combination that is allowed on portions of Highway 101 at Richardson's Grove, Confusion Hill and Big Lagoon. A total of seven tight turns with a combined length of an eighth to a quarter of a mile on those sections of the highway have prevented North Coast livestock ranchers from using interstate cattle haulers because of the truck length restrictions.
Previously, livestock ranchers in the three counties were limited to trailers with a kingpin-to-rear axle of 40 feet, even though more than 90 percent of the equipment used to transport cattle and other livestock to out-of-state markets are trailers with a kingpin-to-rear axle of up to 43 feet, the industry standard, said Andrea Fox of CFBF's governmental affairs division. The length restrictions created an economic disadvantage for North Coast ranchers who often use out-of-state haulers for movement of their product.
According to reports prepared by the California Highway Patrol, fewer than 300 livestock trucks travel to and from the North Coast annually with no reported accidents.
"The biggest way that the new law will affect ranchers is that it enables them to be competitive with the rest of the state and with other states because they will be able to haul more livestock per truckload," Fox said.
Specific to Lake County, SB 319 extends an existing law that allows teen workers, age 16 to 17, to work in pear-packing plants for up to 10 hours a day and 60 hours a week during peak harvest season when school is not in session. The current law was to sunset in 2008 but has now been extended to 2012.
The extension was made to help deal with the labor shortages in Lake County's farming community during harvest time in August. The pear-packing season coincides with the county's tourism season, limiting the available labor pool.
According to the Lake County Employment Development Department, the labor shortage in 2006 resulted in the loss of $2.5 million in lost pears and would have been exacerbated by an absence of minors working in the packing plants.
Related to road safety, SB 1613, which was passed in 2006, bans the use of a cell phone in a moving vehicle unless the driver is using a hands-free device. The new law goes into effect July 1. Violators will face fines of $20 for the first offense and $50 for subsequent offenses.
Specifically, the law requires drivers to use hands-free devices when using mobile phones unless the phone is being used to communicate with police, fire, medical or emergency personnel. Drivers of commercial vehicles, including those engaged in agriculture such as tractors and other farm equipment, will be allowed to use push-to-talk phones until July 1, 2011.
A new law that is already in effect but worth noting is SB 556, which created the Light Brown Apple Moth Program within the California Department of Food and Agriculture to help the state battle the new pest. Modeled after the Pierce's Disease/Glassy Winged Sharpshooter program that was enacted several years ago, SB 556 allows CDFA to allocate funding to local agencies to improve eradication efforts.
The moth was first discovered in the Bay Area in late February and has since spread to 11 counties on the Central Coast and Northern California. Originally from Australia, the insect is known to attack more than 250 species of plants, fruits and vegetables. Its discovery has triggered a multi-county quarantine by the CDFA.
(Ching Lee is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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