Massachusetts farmworkers could be paid as little as $1.60 per hour before a 2014 law required them to be paid at least $8 per hour.
While the state minimum wage since has risen to $13.50, it does not apply to farmworkers, who are excluded from the state minimum wage and overtime pay, among other protections. Supporters of a bill in the Massachusetts Legislature say it is time to end farmworkers’ “second-class status” under state and federal employment law.
That bill would require farmworkers to be paid at least the state minimum wage, provide overtime pay — to seasonal workers after 55 hours and year-round workers after 40 hours — and give workers a day of rest or time-and-a-half pay if they choose to work that day.
The Fairness for Farmworkers coalition, which held a Tuesday legislative briefing over Zoom, includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center, Central West Justice Center, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and Western New England University Professor of Law and Writing Harris Freeman.
State Sen. Adam Gomez and state Rep. Carlos González, both Springfield Democrats, are leading the push for “An act establishing fairness for agricultural workers” in the Senate and House, respectively. State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, are the bill’s lead co-sponsors, the coalition said.
Gomez said farmworkers in Massachusetts remain “victims of a deal” struck between former President Franklin D. Roosevelt and southern segregationist politicians. While those lawmakers supported Roosevelt’s New Deal package of reforms, key labor laws left out farmworkers and domestic workers from minimum wage, overtime and other protections. Those exclusions targeted workforces that were disproportionately Black.
“Allowing this to continue is allowing hard workers in our state to be exploited and is ensuring that the poor stay poor,” Gomez said to more than 50 people on the Zoom call.
Massachusetts minimum wage and overtime entitlements now extend to domestic workers, although federal law continues to exclude domestic workers from mandatory overtime pay.
At least five states have guaranteed all farmworkers the state minimum wage, and several require overtime pay for some workers, according to the nonprofit Farmworker Justice. New York has granted a day of rest.
While speakers said that there are likely few farms paying as low as the $8 per hour minimum, the bill would spell out protections in the law.
Hinds said he believes supporting workers and supporting farmers are not competing priorities. The bill would “make sure that the farms are not making ends meet on the back of their workers,” he said, “and instead let’s find other ways to also support [farms].”
“We’ve seen prices being pushed down by corporate agribusiness, and it’s gotten to a point where it’s very difficult for local farms to make ends meet,” Hinds said.
Mark, who said he has been a union member since he was 16, added that the promise of the labor movement and major labor laws have “never been fully realized” for farmworkers.
An August report from the Fairness for Farmworkers coalition quotes a 27-year-old male farm worker from Franklin County, identified as A. Bartolon. Bartolon said, in Spanish, that while farmworkers “harvest the healthiest food” that goes to grocery stores, they “really don’t have a voice in this country.”
One worker who spoke at the Zoom meeting said there are workers who are not provided access to a bathroom, drinking water or protective equipment such as gloves and masks. The worker, who was identified only as Claudia, said workers are “going in early in the day, leaving late at night, not having time to bathe or spend time with family,” in Spanish.
The poverty that farmworkers experience “has real and material impacts on health,” Maggie Sullivan said. A family nurse practitioner at Boston Health Care for the Homeless and clinical consultant for the Connecticut River Valley Farmworker Health Program, Sullivan said she was speaking for herself.
“Farmworkers who I have worked with are unable to afford the type of nutritious food that they help to put on our table,” Sullivan said. “This often leads to blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol and weight problems, not just for themselves as individuals but for their families.”
The Massachusetts Institute for Technology’s living wage calculator puts the living wage at $14.25 per hour for an adult with no children in Berkshire County.
Workers often turn down medical care or treatment because they cannot afford it, Sullivan said. With the coronavirus pandemic, some workers struggle to find time for vaccination because they are not in a financial position to risk losing a few days of earnings in case of side effects, she added, and living conditions often also put farmworkers at greater risk for transmission.
A 2020 publication from the University of Massachusetts’ Political Economy Research Institute estimated that providing the state minimum wage and overtime pay to farmworkers would result in a 1.3 percent increase in farms’ labor costs. That increase — equivalent to a 2-cent increase for a gallon of milk or a 1-cent rise in the cost of a pound of asparagus — would be “nearly imperceptible” if passed onto consumers, according to author Jeannette Wicks-Lim, an associate research professor at UMass.
Groups supporting the bill outside of the coalition include the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy coalition, Western Mass. Area Labor Federation and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459. Eleven lawmakers are listed as co-sponsors for the bill on the Massachusetts Legislature’s website.
The Pioneer Valley Workers’ Center has been surveying farmworkers since 2017 and hopes to release a report soon looking into working conditions and any differential treatment by race, said Andrea Schmid, who heads the center’s organizing department.
Schmid said the next step for the bill is an October hearing that has yet to be scheduled.