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Strawberry Pickers and Producers Battle Over Wages

On Thursday, October 26th, the Economics Department hosted a talk by Agricultural and Resource Economics Ph.D. student Alexandra E. Hill. Hill previewed her new research focusing on California strawberry pickers and their relation to two recent changes in California wage laws: one that increased the minimum wage, and another which forced farm producers to pay their workers overtime (AB 1066).

California producers were quick to respond to news that they would have to pay their workers higher wages. Tom Nassif, chief executive officer for the Western Growers Association, stated in a recent article posted to the Western Farm Press Blog that “California farmers will have no choice but to avoid even higher costs of production and they will utilize a number of strategies, including reducing work shifts and production of crops that require large numbers of employees.”

It is in this context of producer resistance that Hill designed the three research questions framing her project: how does the minimum wage interact with “piece-rate” wages for strawberry pickers, what does a higher minimum wage do to worker productivity, and how will producers solve the problem of lower worker productivity?

Hill argues that, because strawberry pickers are typically paid via a “piece-rate” system (that is, they make a minimum wage plus more based on how many boxes of strawberries they pick), a higher minimum wage actually decreases the productivity of the least productive strawberry pickers.

In other words, as Hill explains it, workers no longer would have to pick as many strawberries to make the same amount of money they did under the old minimum wage laws. A higher minimum wage means that there is a higher “price floor” for worker wages, so for example, you would only have to pick four boxes of strawberries to make as much money as you did picking five boxes previously.

Hill posits that pickers work faster with piece-rate pay than with a fixed rate, noting that workers under the first system will be self-motivated to pick more strawberries, whereas workers under the second system often require a supervisor to maintain the same level of output.

She supports the above claims using six years of data (2010-2016) gathered from a strawberry ranch in Watsonville, which allows her to map out worker productivity over time based on how quickly they filled boxes with strawberries. Her analysis of the data suggests that the slowest strawberry pickers would work even slower under the new higher wage laws, leading to significant productivity loss for producers in the short run.

I asked Hill whether she had consulted with the workers (regarding the increased pay and overtime benefits) in order to contextualize the data she received from producers. As of yet, she has not discussed this topic with the workers, but would like to in the future. Additionally, the producers might allow their workers to take a survey with relevant questions, and if so, Hill plans to incorporate those results into her research.

And this would be important, because Hill’s research can only be helped by the addition of the strawberry picker’s perspective. Because her project draws on data acquired from producers and is constructed around research questions that echo arguments made by producers, it would gain much from contextualizing its findings within an investigation of worker’s experience with increased wages.

For instance, perhaps worker productivity goes down not because higher minimum wages always lead to lower productivity among piece-rate workers, but because a higher minimum wage and overtime pay means workers no longer have to overextend themselves to obtain a decent wage? In which case the question becomes: historically speaking, have producers been fair in the amount of work they assign to pickers in relation to the amount of money they pay them?

In any case, Hill’s project will do much to begin shedding light on this complex situation. More research like hers will enable us to figure out how to best balance the interests of workers and producers in relation to wage increases and production costs.


– Nicholas Garcia, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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