Northampton City Council resolution backs fair pay for farmworkers

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Staff Writer
Published: 10/8/2021 1:32:07 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The City Council on Thursday passed the first reading of a resolution endorsing the Fairness for Farmworkers Act, which is moving through the state Legislature.

The bill (S.1205, H.1979) eliminates the $8 subminimum wage for farmworkers and raises their pay to the state minimum wage — currently $13.50 per hour — while guaranteeing time and a half for overtime hours. A second reading by the council is scheduled for Oct. 21.

Before the unanimous vote, councilors decried the exploitation of farmworkers in the form of unpaid overtime and meager wages, while acknowledging that most farms in Hampshire County pay more than the subminimum wage.

“It is time to make it fair” for all farmworkers statewide, said Councilor Marianne LaBarge of Ward 6, one of the resolution’s three sponsors. “I find there is a racial problem with this, and this bothers me. It bothers me.”

The resolution proposed by Councilors LaBarge, Rachel Maiore of Ward 7 and Michael Quinlan of Ward 1 states that Hampshire County has 692 farms and 1,267 farmworkers. There are roughly 13,000 farmworkers statewide, and they “are overwhelmingly immigrants originating from Latin America.”

“Farmworkers in Massachusetts are at present denied the wage and hour protections provided to other workers, miring farmworkers and their families in unjust work and living conditions,” the resolution reads. “Farmworkers additionally face unique workplace hazards and health concerns resulting from long work hours, exposure to pesticides and a physically demanding, fast-paced work environment.”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, farms are exempt from paying minimum wage and overtime under certain conditions, like if their workers principally raise livestock or if they are employing family members. Wage and overtime protections do not apply if the farm utilized fewer than 500 “man days” — at least one hour of work by an employee in a day — during any quarter of the previous year.

Farms are also allowed to pay a per-piece rate for agricultural products that are harvested by hand.

Audi Gonzalez, a Guatemalan immigrant and farmworker, spoke through a translator during the meeting’s public comment period.

“It’s really not fair for the pay to be so low. … Especially with families, it’s not possible to survive on that amount,” Gonzalez said. “It’s been a dream of mine, since I came to this  country, that people would value the work of farmworkers and take it seriously. … People see us just as machines.”

Voicing her support for the resolution, Councilor Karen Foster of Ward 2 said, “There’s a hefty American desire for cheap food, and it causes a tremendous amount of suffering.”

An average farmworker in Massachusetts who works 36 hours a week, and makes the minimum wage, earns about $25,000 per year, according to a 2020 report by the UMass Amherst Political Economy Research Institute. Earning only the  subminimum wage drops that annual inco me to less than $15,000.

“For t he average farmworker with overtime hours, an expansion of overtime protections could boost their weekly earnings by 16.7 %,” while each farm would see less than a 2% increase in operating expenses, the report by Dr. Jeanette Wicks-Lim reads. “The price of an average gallon of milk would increase from $3.50 to $3.52. The price of a pound of asparagus would increase from $2.50 to $2.51.”

The Fairness for Farmworkers Act offers seasonal farmworkers 1½ times their normal rate of pay for work performed in excess of 55 hours a week, and establishes the right to a day of rest each week for seasonal farmworkers, providing overtime pay at time and a half for those who choose to work on the day of rest.

Citing March statistics from the Connecticut River Valley Farmworker Health Program, the resolution reads that “twice as many farmworker families now live in severe poverty as compared to other families.” The health program said that 80% of its members did not have health insurance in 2019.

Harris Freeman, a professor of labor and employment law at Western New England University, told the council that he “helped put the bill together,” and that it has the support of state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa and state Sen. Jo Comerford, both Democrats of Northampton.

The status quo is “not in keeping with the laws and the morality and the politics of our town or the state of Massachusetts,” Freeman said, urging councilors to support the effort.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.


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