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After years-long effort, farmworkers in Maine may soon gain minimum wage protections


After years-long effort, farmworkers in Maine may soon gain minimum wage protections

Sep 20, 2023 | 4:00 am ET
By Evan Popp
After years-long effort, farmworkers in Maine may soon gain minimum wage protections
A farmworker in Maine harvests zucchini. (Courtesy of John Williams/MOFGA)

With the harvest season underway in Maine, farmworkers are once again toiling under conditions that differ dramatically from the labor standards others enjoy on the job. By this time next year, though, that may change — at least somewhat — as momentum is building to reform a major aspect of Maine’s two-tiered labor system. 

This summer and fall, a committee created by Gov. Janet Mills is tasked with coming up with a policy to establish a minimum wage for farmworkers in Maine, as agriculture laborers are currently only covered by the lower federal minimum wage and generally don’t receive overtime protections. 

The effort comes after Mills, a Democrat, vetoed a bill in July that would have made farmworkers subject to the state minimum wage — currently $13.80 an hour compared to $7.25 on the federal level — while also granting them limited overtime protections. The governor’s rejection of the measure prompted an outcry from farmworker advocates, unions and progressive groups, who argued that having access to such safeguards is a matter of fundamental fairness. 

In her veto letter, Mills said she does support a minimum wage for farmworkers. However, she claimed the bill passed by the legislature had the potential to create unintended consequences in relation to other parts of state and federal labor law. 

Mills followed up her veto with an executive order at the end of July directing the state Department of Labor and the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to convene a committee to “develop and implement a minimum wage for agricultural workers.”

The group, which includes members who work directly with farmworkers as well as labor rights advocates, political leaders and farm industry interests, had its first meeting Sept. 5 and aims to develop a bill for the legislature to consider in the upcoming session, which starts in January. The deadline for the committee to make its policy recommendations to the governor is Dec. 1. 

Advocates say they are cautiously optimistic that the committee can put forward a strong proposal to address the historic exemption of farmworkers from the state minimum wage. 

“I want to stay on the positive side and see where this goes,” said Thom Harnett, a former member of the Maine Legislature who represented House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) at the Sept. 5 meeting. “And hopefully it goes in a way that gives farmworkers parity with every other working person in the state of Maine, and that would include a fair minimum wage and a minimum wage tied to inflation.” 

Another member of the committee, Juana Rodriguez Vazquez, executive director of the Maine-based farmworker empowerment group Mano en Mano, said she will also be calling for agricultural workers to be recognized as employees under Maine law, a designation they don’t currently have

“It’s hard for me to think about why we are defending why farmworkers should be recognized as an employee when they are an employee working for employers,” she said, noting the long hours that farmworkers put in to harvest crops. 

It’s not clear exactly how far-reaching a proposal Mills is willing to support, though, and the language of the executive order does not say specifically whether the governor wants the minimum wage set for farmworkers in Maine to be the same as the regular state minimum wage. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment asking for more details about what exactly Mills wants included in the proposal.

Historical exclusion of farmworkers

As policymakers consider the issue of farmworkers and the minimum wage, Harnett said it’s important to understand that the exemption of agricultural workers from many modern labor laws has its roots in the racism of the 1930s New Deal era, when laws establishing a minimum wage and unionization rights were passed. At the time, conservative Southern Democrats seeking to maintain power over people of color successfully pushed for some categories of workers — such as domestic laborers and farmworkers — to be excluded from the reforms. 

While farmworkers eventually became subject to the federal minimum wage, Maine remains one of the states where agriculture laborers aren’t covered by the state-specific base wage. Harnett — who as a state representative repeatedly proposed legislation to provide farmworkers with equal labor rights — called the continued exclusion of agricultural workers from such laws a legacy of racism and slavery in the U.S. 

Harnett emphasized that this doesn’t make farming interests that have opposed expanding labor rights for today’s agricultural workers racist. However, he argued that it is morally indefensible to continue giving “a lesser bundle of rights to certain groups of people.” 

Vazquez added that unless farmworkers are given the same rights as other employees, the low wages they receive and sometimes poor way they are treated won’t change and they will “continue to be invisible.” 

The lesser bundle of rights granted to farmworkers has indeed had a significant impact on their lives, research shows. A study by the Maine Center for Economic Policy (MECEP) found that a quarter of farmworkers in the state — many of whom are migrant laborers — live in poverty and that they are 4.5 times more likely to be below the poverty line than other workers in Maine. 

Arthur Phillips, an analyst for MECEP and another member of the minimum wage committee, said that data illustrates the poor economic circumstances many farmworkers in Maine continue to face, demonstrating the need for reform.

Like Harnett, Phillips said he’s hopeful that the committee can come to an agreement to cover farmworkers under the state minimum wage. However, he said the details of that policy will be important. For example, Phillips and other advocates say they are opposed to creating a lower minimum wage for farmworkers than the regular state base wage and instead want a bill that treats agricultural workers like any other employee in Maine. 

I don’t want to perpetuate this dual system that we have that treats one person’s work as less deserving and less valuable than another person’s.

– Thom Harnett

However, Phillips and Harnett added that they are frustrated the committee is needed at all, given that Mills had a chance to sign the bill in July to cover farmworkers under the minimum wage. The governor’s decision to nix that measure came after Mills also vetoed legislation in 2022, sponsored by Harnett, to allow farmworkers to unionize.

“It was a pretty robust process that led to this bill that we were fully expecting … to become law and we were really disappointed by that last-minute veto,” Phillips said of the rejection of the minimum wage measure. 

Other labor reforms for farmworkers may face opposition 

While the committee is specifically tasked with considering the issue of farmworkers and the minimum wage, those are not the only labor-related problems agricultural employees currently face.

However, Harnett and Phillips say it’s unlikely that the committee will deal with the issue of farmworker unionization rights. And Phillips said it’s unclear whether overtime will be a topic of discussion. The vetoed legislation did contain a provision protecting farmworkers from being forced to work over 80 hours of overtime in a consecutive two-week period. As a result, Phillips said he hopes the task force will also take up that issue. 

“If farmworkers want to stop working after that really significant stretch of hours over a two-week period, then I think they deserve that right,” Phillips said.   

Vazquez also hopes the committee will address overtime. Vazquez, whose parents were migrant farmworkers, said she recalls the significant amount of time her family spent harvesting crops in the fields. 

“[I remember] not really seeing my parents during the day because they got up early in the morning, left and got back late in the evening and had supper. It was kind of the same routine. Farmworkers are out in the fields; they’re working all the time,” she said, arguing that those long hours deserve to be recognized.

But some bolder reforms may run into opposition from others on the committee, including farming industry representatives (although certain groups like the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association strongly support extending full labor rights to farmworkers.) 

Julie Ann Smith, executive director of the Maine Farm Bureau and another member of the governor’s task force, said her organization — which submitted testimony in opposition to the bill vetoed earlier this year — supports farmworkers being covered under the state minimum wage. 

“The governor had a pretty clear directive that she wants to be able to submit a bill that ensures that all farmworkers throughout the state are paid a minimum wage,” Smith said. 

However, the Farm Bureau will push for some carve-outs, including allowing youth workers to be paid less and preserving the piece-rate system in the places where it exists. Smith said that type of system pays farmworkers by the box of produce they pick and typically results in compensation that is higher than the state minimum wage. 

In addition, Smith said she does not support changing labor rules to provide farmworkers with the overtime protections included within the vetoed bill, arguing that such a regulation could interfere with the demanding schedule for crop harvesting. 

“Agriculture is so unique in the way it operates,” Smith said. “And especially in Maine with our growing season and how different it is from the rest of the country, we certainly need to have some … flexibility in the way that we operate the business.”

However, advocates say the bottom line is that farmworkers should not be treated differently than other Maine workers, and they expressed opposition to continuing exemptions from labor laws that set agricultural workers apart. 

“I don’t want to perpetuate this dual system that we have that treats one person’s work as less deserving and less valuable than another person’s,” Harnett said.