Piece-Rate Pay and Heat Deaths

Mounting evidence suggests that paying workers by piece-rate—that is a set amount for each bucket they fill with strawberries or bin they fill with watermelon—facilitates heat illness by encouraging workers to skip breaks. Under the California Labor Code, workers must receive a 10-minute break every four hours, even while harvesting by piece-rate. Because they are not compensated at the piece-rate for their breaks, workers being paid piece-rate have an incentive to skip breaks in order to maximize their pay. In crops where workers harvest as teams—such as cantaloupe, watermelon, and corn—peer pressure exacerbates the financial incentive piece-rate already gives workers to forego their breaks. For these workers, requesting a break while harvesting on piece-rate would not only adversely impact their own pay but also cost them their jobs on the team. In the book, I use Elisabeta’s story to describe how teams harvesting mini-watermelon by contract frequently forego state-mandated breaks, and how piece-rate pay is particularly detrimental to the health of the elderly, of children, and those with chronic disease (pp. 137-138).

In the book, Elisabeta describes the death of her colleague who was harvesting mini-watermelon by contract (p. 145) on July 2, 2013. His death occurred on a day in which no members of his team received their breaks, even in the midst of a heat wave in Fresno County. According to Elisabeta, the man’s family is now suing the company for negligence for violating the state’s labor code. Elisabeta says that the mayordomo of her team for this company routinely asks his team whether they would prefer to skip their breaks so that they can reach the company’s quota and “go home earlier.” Indeed, farmworkers reported that mayordomos supervising workers paid by piece-rate commonly posed this question. Under California labor code, it is illegal for employers to “encourage” workers to skip their breaks. By making the forfeiture of breaks appear voluntary, mayordomos’ asking workers to agree to forego breaks may be a strategy to avoid liability for deaths like Elisabeta’s colleague’s.

The death of Elisabeta’s colleague triggered a Cal-OSHA inspection, which was later posted to the federal OSHA website. The narrative on the website states that the man was walking to his car at the end of a 6-hour work shift when he “collapsed.” His coworker alerted the man’s supervisor to his condition and they transported him first to a cold storage facility to help him cool down. When they later took him to the Coalinga Community Medical Center, he was pronounced dead with a core body temperature of 109.4 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the OSHA website, the Cal-OSHA inspection of the man’s death resulted in the company receiving a $750 for a field sanitation violation and $25,000 for not having an injury and illness prevention program in place (1). However, there is no record of Cal-OSHA levying a fine for the company’s violation of state law by failing to provide workers with breaks, nor of the agency even investigating this issue.

In October 2015—just after I sent my book to press—the state of California passed a law that may mitigate the harm that piece-rate pay poses to farmworkers’ health. With the aim of providing farmworkers an incentive to rest even when being paid piece-rate, the law mandates that all workers be compensated for “nonproductive time” such as rest and recovery beaks at a rate equivalent to the piece-rate itself (2). This new law could provide workers a compelling reason to rest. Indeed, in 1992, a federal-state partnership on occupational injuries in agriculture first recommended that the state provide workers being paid by piece-rate precisely this kind of incentive. After investigating the death of a 25-year-old cantaloupe harvester who contracted heatstroke while being paid by piece-rate, this group concluded: “In this incident, the work crew had a disincentive to take rest breaks and drink water. If breaks had been encouraged and workers provided with an incentive to take them, then this death may have been prevented” (3).

Under the strengthened heat illness standard that California adopted in 2015, employers bear the responsibility to provide mandatory 10-minute breaks every two hours once the temperature rises past 95 degrees. If this had been the law in 2013, and Elisabeta’s employer had followed it, this might have prevented the death of her coworker. Indeed, given the key role that breaks play in states’ current protections for outdoor workers, compensating farmworkers for these breaks at the average piece-rate is a necessary reinforcement to the heat illness standard’s regulatory armature. Together, the high-heat provisions and piece-rate compensation for nonproductive time are examples of workplace protections that farmworker advocates could productively promote in other states. If properly enforced, these new laws could help avoid deaths like that of the 25-year-old cantaloupe harvester’s in 1992 and of Elisabeta’s colleague in 2013. 

1. OSHA. 2014. “Accident: 201497930 - Employee Collapses While Harvesting, Later Dies.” US DOL OSHA. https://www.osha.gov/pls/imis/accidentsearch.accident_detail?id=201497930, accessed August 1, 2016.
2. Recognizing that sometimes piece-rate workers earn an average hourly pay less than the minimum wage, the new law mandates that workers are compensated at whichever is greater: the minimum wage or a rate equivalent to he worker’s average hourly wage for all hours worked that week.
3. California NURSE Project. 1992. “Cantaloupe Picker Dies of Heat Stroke.” Berkeley, California: California Department of Health Services, California Occupational Health Program. Nurse Report #7. May 1992.