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CA Farmers Sue to Block 'Piece-Rate' Modifications

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By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on July 01, 2016 1:59 PM

A California farming interest league has filed a complaint in Fresno County Court alleging that Assembly Bill 1513, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, is unconstitutionally vague, according to Court House News.

The law is essentially an updated version of a pay scheme that California has had in place since the turn of the century. But now its critics have argued that the latest updates are an opening for harm to farmers and even to workers.

Basic History

Since 1919, California has allowed farmers and other agricultural employers to pay their workers on a "piece-rate" scheme based on the number of units a worker produces, rather than the amount of hours spent working. It's a pay paradigm that the agricultural industry has generally favored.

Vagueness

However, the state's Nisei Farmers League and other plaintiffs have argued that Assembly Bill 1513 passed last year contains language that is problematic, even unconstitutional. The law mandates that employers pay employees for rest-breaks and "other nonproductive time at or above specified minimum hourly rates." It's the definition of "other nonproductive time" that the plaintiffs have called unconstitutionally vague.

Practical Problems

The complaint alleges that the language is bound to create legal troubles in the future. Plaintiffs further allege that differences between workers' productivity will essentially end the effectiveness of the piece-rate scheme; and it will even present challenges with regards to accurate record keeping.

Unequal Ability, Equal Pay?

The law also contains a safe harbor provision that the League has called vague and unclear. "If an employer agrees to pay 'actual sums due,' and does not pay anything additional based on the supportable belief that no further sums are due, but a court later disagrees, that employer will have exposed itself to civil damages and penalties, and potentially criminal penalties, when it could have paid the sums due had it known what sums were due," the League says.

A ruling is expected soon -- unless the court dismisses the case for lack of standing. However, the League was careful to plead a wide variety of different causes of action and theories. It's currently seeking an injunction.

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