Farmworker Justice Condemns New Jersey Legislative Proposal to Discriminate Against Farmworkers in Minimum Wage Law

          New Jersey state legislators are working on legislation to raise the state minimum wage gradually in steps, from the current $8.85 per hour, to $15.00 per hour by 2024.  But the proposed legislation would move farmworker rights backwards by creating a new exception from the state minimum wage for agricultural workers.  Farmworkers would not be entitled to receive $15.00 per hour by 2024.  Instead, employers could pay farmworkers lower wages that would gradually reach $12.50 an hour by 2024.  

            While the proposed compromise also has a slower phase-in for employees of small businesses and some seasonal workers, these workers would reach $15 per hour by 2026, and by 2028 will have an equalized minimum wage with other workers.  But all farmworkers, regardless of the employers’ size, would be excluded from a guaranteed $15.00 per hour rate.  Farmworkers would have a possibility of reaching $15.00 an hour minimum by 2027, but only if recommended by certain government officials.

                   The proposed compromise is out of step with the labor market, even for this low-paid occupation.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Labor Survey of field and livestock workers, in the region that includes New Jersey (along with Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania), the average wage for farmworkers during 2018 was $13.15 per hour.   Five years from now, the minimum wage for these low-wage workers should not be a mere $12.50 an hour.

            The proposed wage discrimination is fundamentally unfair.  Much of the longstanding discrimination against farmworkers in wage and hour protections is rooted in racism and political expediency. Today, the majority of agricultural workers are Latino. Discrimination has persisted, depriving farmworkers of basic workplace protections and fundamental human and democratic rights.  It’s time to end this unjust discrimination, not extend it. New Jersey’s minimum wage law hasn’t been discriminating recently and shouldn’t start now. 

           Because many farmworkers’ jobs are seasonal, it is especially important that they earn enough during the season to support themselves and their families if they cannot find other work during the off-season.  Depriving farmworkers of the minimum wage applicable to other workers harms the very workers most in need.

A sub-minimum wage is also inappropriate because farm work is ranked as one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States.  It’s often back-breaking work in high temperatures with extraordinary productivity demands on the people laboring in the fields to harvest produce and on dairy farms to produce milk.   

            A low minimum wage is especially harmful for the most vulnerable workers who lack the bargaining power to win improved wages.  The large majority of farmworkers are immigrants, many of whom have been terrorized by the Trump Administration’s crackdown on immigrant communities.  This fear often causes farmworkers to avoid challenging unfair or illegal employment practices, which impacts all farmworkers, regardless of their immigration status.  And because many farmworkers are not citizens, they lack the political power that their employers exercise.

            A low minimum wage also harms many law-abiding, reasonable agricultural businesses that are trying to do the right thing by treating farmworkers with respect and compensating them fairly.  Such responsible employers must compete against businesses that maximize profits by shaving their labor costs.      

              “Farmworker Justice calls on the New Jersey legislature and Governor to treat farmworkers equally with other workers and guarantee them the same path to $15.00 an hour as other workers in the state’s economy, said Farmworker Justice President Bruce Goldstein.  He added, “New Jersey’s government officials should demonstrate respect for the valuable role played by farmworkers who feed us and should not deprive farmworkers of the equal protection of the law.”