Farmworkers’ Low Wage Rates Have Risen Modestly; Now Congress May Pass a Law to Lower Them

It needs to be said:  Farmworkers’ wage rates are too low.  Farmworkers provide us with abundant, safe, healthy food at relatively low cost.  They work hard in one of the most dangerous jobs in the nation. They should be compensated for it fairly.

Yet there is a real threat that Congress will soon legislate to lower farmworkers’ wages. Some agribusiness groups are complaining that they have to raise their wage rates due to a tightening in the farm labor market.  One 2018 report by an agribusiness-supported bank characterizes pay raises for farmworkers negatively, calling them “wage inflation.” 1

A conservative columnist, however, recently defended farmworkers’ right to benefit from a competitive labor market. 2 “So how much is someone’s time worth? The short answer:  Whatever someone else is willing to pay for it. Fine. But that rule suddenly doesn’t apply to farmworkers? Why not?”

Indeed, why not? Let’s look at the numbers on how farmworkers are compensated.

Farmworkers’ annual incomes are low.  About 30% of farmworker families live below the poverty line, according to the most recent  National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS).3That’s almost double the poverty rate of the U.S. as a whole (15.9% in 2012).4

Average and median farmworker household incomes ranged from $20,000 to $24,999.5  By comparison, the median US household income for the same year was over $54,000 and the average household income exceeded $76,000.6

Farm work is among the lowest paid jobs.  Data on farmworkers’ wages are imperfect but still tell a troubling story of low wage rates despite evidence of modest increases in the last few years.  One measure, The USDA Farm Labor Survey (FLS), surveys farms, but not farm labor contractors (“FLCs”). A second source, the Occupational Employment Statistics survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not survey farms; instead the BLS surveys farm labor contractors and other labor intermediaries that supply farmworkers to farms.  In either case, the data indicates an undervaluing of the physically difficult and dangerous work.

The BLS reports that the median wage for the Farming, Fishing and Forestry category falls at the bottom end with other workers in the food supply chain.7 According to the BLS, crop workers during 2017 averaged $11.24 per hour and livestock farmworkers earned $12.24 per hour. Interestingly, the farm labor contractors increased their wages much faster than inflation between 2012 and 2017, but these increases bolstered a lower wage rate compared to the farms in the USDA FLS.8

Nationally, farmworkers averaged $12.47 an hour during 2017, according to the USDA Farm Labor Survey (FLS) findings on wages of nonsupervisory crop and livestock workers combined.  The average wage in 2012 was $10.80 an hour. That’s an average annual increase of about 2.6% per year, which was slightly more than inflation.9 The USDA FLS reports average wage rates by region.  The Arizona and New Mexico region was the lowest at $10.46 per hour.  California, the largest agricultural state, averaged $13.18. Outside of Hawaii ($14.37), the Washington-Oregon region topped the list at $14.12 per hour.

One complexity in analyzing farmworkers’ wages is that a substantial percentage of crop workers are paid piece-rate wages, which allows growers to pay them based on the volume of fruits or vegetables they harvest.  Many piece-rate workers say that their pay stubs show an artificially inflated number of hours worked per day so that the employer makes it appear that their piece-rate earnings have yielded the required hourly minimum wage.

While these surveys show average wage rates exceeding the legal minimum wage, many employers only pay the minimum wage.  While several states have increased their minimum wage, including Florida at $8.25 per hour; California, $11.00; Washington, $11.50; Arizona, $10.50, the federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 per hour since 2009 and does not apply in some circumstances, such as at small farms.  The federal law provides a floor in several states, such as Georgia, where the minimum wage of $5.15 does not even apply to farms.

Most farmworkers in the fruit and vegetable sector are employed seasonally, not year-round, and their wages are too low to yield a reasonable annual income.  In occupations such as education and construction, many seasonal workers are paid enough to make a decent annual income and keep them coming back each year. In many rural communities it is difficult for farmworkers to find a different job during the off-season, and unemployment compensation is often unavailable. We also need to consider that housing and other costs of living in rural communities where farmworkers work often are not cheap.10

If you think raising wages to help improve farmworkers’ lives would blow up your food budget, think again.  Farmworkers’ wages are a small part of the price paid by consumers and therefore large wage increases for farmworkers would barely dent consumers’ wallets.

As National Geographic reported, “Remember that farmworkers’ share of each U.S. household’s annual grocery bill is $45. If farm worker wages go up by 47 percent, grocery bills would go up just $21.15 a year, or $1.76 a month” per household. 11 Some well-paid fruit pickers in Washington State receive about $25.00 for filling a bin that holds 800 to 1,000 pounds of apples.  That’s 2.5 cents to 3 cents per pound going to the farmworker so that he or she, if picking fast, has the opportunity to earn $18 to $20 per hour.  What do you pay for those apples: $2.50 a pound or maybe $1.25 a pound on sale?

The modest rise in farmworkers’ wages is under attack.  Certain agribusiness groups are pushing hard for Congress to pass Rep. Goodlatte’s anti-worker, anti-immigrant Agricultural Guestworker Act.  This bill would replace the current H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program with an H-2C visa program. One of many reasons to oppose the bill is that employers who hire foreign guestworkers would no longer be required to pay at least the prevailing wage rates.   Employers could bring in hundreds of thousands of temporary foreign workers at below- market rates, and U.S. farmworkers would be forced to accept those wage rates or be denied a job, driving down wages for all farmworkers.  We must preserve and improve wage protections.

The modest increases in farmworkers’ wages in recent years are well-deserved, but much more needs to be done to improve wages, working conditions, occupational safety, health and access to justice.  It is especially important -- for workers, employers and consumers – that Congress grant undocumented farmworkers and their families the opportunity for immigration status and citizenship. We must continue the quest to end farmworker poverty.    

1. CoBank, “Help Wanted:  Wage Inflation and Worker Scarcity, U.S. Agribusiness Experiences Hiring Headaches ,” Aug. 2018, available at https://www.cobank.com/-/media/files/ked/general/help-wanted-aug-2018.pdf .

2. Ruben Navarrette, Jr. “For many, time is money — but does that include farmworkers?,” Sept. 8, 2018, https://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/navarrette/article/For-many-time-is-... .

3. U.S. Department of Labor, “Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey, 2013-14,” Research Report No. 12 (published 2016) at iii, 37-38.  The survey asked farmworkers to report their income from the year before. We therefore compare the NAWS results to data in other surveys from 2012. Available at https://www.doleta.gov/naws/pages/research/docs/NAWS_Research_Report_12.pdf

4.  U.S. Census Bureau, American Survey Briefs, Poverty 2000 to 2012 (Sept. 2013) available at https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/2013/acs/acsbr12-01.pdf

5. NAWS, at iii and 37.

6. Income and Poverty in the United States: 2017 Table A-1, Households by Total Money Income, Race, and Hispanic Origin of Householder: 1967 to 2017, Bureau of Labor Statistics (U.S. Census Bureau), Sept. 12, 2018, available at https://www.census.gov/content/census/en/library/publications/2018/demo/...

7. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics (OES), May 2017 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, see Occupational Groups 45-0000 (Farming, Fishing and Forestry Occupations, and 35-0000 (Food Preparation and Serving Occupations) , available at https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm

8. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics (OES), May 2017 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, see Occupational Groups 45-2092 and 45-2093, available at https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm

9. Annual Average Wage Rates - Region and United States: 2016 and 2017, in Farm Labor, Nov. 16, 2017 (National Agricultural Statistics Service, United States Department of Agriculture) at p. 25, available at  https://www.foreignlaborcert.doleta.gov/pdf/USDA_FLS_report.pdf and Annual Average Wage Rates - Region and United States: 2011 and 2012, Farm Labor, Nov. 19, 2012, at p. 24 http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/nass/FarmLabo//2010s/2012/FarmLabo-...

Also available at Farm Labor website, http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/MannUsda/viewDocumentInfo.do;jsessionid=...

10. In the wine country of Napa Valley, California, where rents are unaffordable for farmworkers, some commute by car or van 2 to 4 hours round trip daily.  Esther Mobley, “Farmworker housing may get a subsidy boost in Napa,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 11, 2017. The Economic Policy Institute Family Budget Calculator provides the annual income needed for a modest standard of living for a family of two adults and two children, including for these major agricultural production areas:  $$102,776 in Napa County, California; 86,781 in Yuma County, Arizona; $74,674 in Yakima County, Washington; $71,046 in Polk County, Florida; $89,709 in Wayne County, New York; and $76,822 in Berrien County, Michigan.

11. Tracie McMillan, “Can We Afford to Pay U.S. Farmworkers More,” National Geographic, March 31, 2016, available at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/201...