Columnist Bill Newman: State’s farmworkers deserve better

  • A worker cleans out a tobacco barn at a farm in Hadley last November. Gazette file photo

Published: 9/10/2021 5:59:56 PM

What is the minimum wage in Massachusetts? It’s not a trick question, but there’s not one simple answer.

Let’s begin with the legislative “grand bargain” of 2018. The grand bargain bill created a permanent two-day weekend sales tax holiday; eliminated time and a half for retail workers on Sundays and holidays; established a new family and medical leave program; and increased the minimum wage over five years from $11 an hour in 2019 to $15 an hour in 2023. In 2021 the minimum wage is $13.50. Next year it will be $14.25.

But not for everybody. Tipped workers are guaranteed less on the theory that tips will make up the difference, and the minimum wage for farmworkers is $8 an hour.

That’s not a typo. Really, it’s $8 an hour. In the grand bargain farmworkers never had a seat at the table.

Eight dollars an hour — for these essential workers who do skilled and extremely arduous labor — it’s hard to believe. Other essential workers in the food-supply chain — meat packers, food processors and grocery store employees, for example — are guaranteed the minimum wage, but not farmworkers.

And the story gets worse.

Seasonal farmworkers are not entitled to a day off. Really, they can be required to work seven days a week, which at the height of the growing season means 10 hour days — or longer.

And the story gets worse still. Unlike other workers, who are guaranteed overtime after 40 hours, farmworkers receive no overtime. None.

The reason for this unfairness? President Franklin Roosevelt, in exchange for Southern segregationist senators’ votes for New Deal legislation, acquiesced to their demands for the exclusion of domestic workers and farmworkers, mostly descendants of slaves, from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Social Security Act. State laws followed suit, with predictable results.

Today farmworkers, here and elsewhere, are to a large degree members of marginalized communities, who are subject to exploitation. About 90% of the 13,000 seasonal farmworkers in Massachusetts are immigrants. Most work on larger farms and agricultural enterprises, including apple orchards, cranberry bogs and fish hatcheries. Fifty-five percent live in near-poverty or poverty compared to 25% of other families.

But there is hope. The Fairness for Farmworkers Act, now pending in the state Legislature, sponsored by Sens. Adam Gomez and Adam Hinds and Reps. Carlos Gonzalez and Paul Mark, would guarantee farmworkers the state minimum wage, overtime after 55 hours and a day off each week if the worker desires it.

Advocates are working hard for its passage. The coalition supporting this law includes Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition, Connecticut River Valley Farmworkers Health Program, Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1459, Massachusetts AFL-CIO, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, Pioneer Valley Workers Center, Central-West Justice Center, and the ACLU of Massachusetts. (I am ACLUM’s representative to the coalition.)

Of course, as is the case almost any time workers seek a raise, employers (some, but in this situation certainly not all) assert that they can’t afford it. But here the facts tell another story.

A study by the University of Massachusetts Amherst Political Economy and Research Institute (PERI) in conjunction with information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the UMASS Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment demonstrate that Massachusetts can accommodate the increase. In part this is so because the commonwealth has a robust farm to table infrastructure, and additionally, compared to most other states, direct sales to consumers make up a larger part of our farm economy. These reports show that the increase in the minimum wage will only nominally increase total farm production costs, which can be covered by a small increase in sales price that most consumers will not notice.

Massachusetts likes to think of itself as a leader in progressive legislation, but in this instance we aren’t. California, Colorado, New York, Ohio, South Dakota, Washington state and Wisconsin all have, in recent years, applied their minimum wage laws to farmworkers. Maine has a similar bill under consideration. There is a federal bill pending as well, but you can imagine how it will fare under Mitch McConnell and the Senate’s filibuster rules.

The bottom line is this: the commonwealth’s exclusion of farmworkers from basic labor law protections is an unsustainable moral and economic stain on our state. It is time to right the wrong of an $8 an hour minimum wage, no overtime, and no days off. It is time to end this shame. It is time to pass the Fairness for Farmworkers Act.

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The remote legislative briefing on the Fairness for Farmworkers Act, to which the public is invited, will take place Tuesday, Sept. 14, at 10 a.m. Information on the briefing is available at bit.ly/FFFinMA. The coalition’s White Paper, titled “Fruits of the Past,” which details facts, policies and reasons to support this legislation, is available at https://www.masslegalservices.org/content/fairness-farmworkers-act.

Bill Newman writes a monthly column.


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