Money; sometimes we all wish it would just appear in our laps. Whether we like it or not money is important to live and, just like many of us, farmworkers hustle every day to provide it for their families.

Most of us buy groceries and are aware of the dollar amount we spend in the food we purchase. But how often do we stop to think about the human cost of bringing home the delicious food we enjoy? Unfortunately, farmworkers have the lowest incomes of any wage and salary worker in the US.

The National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) most recent report indicates that the average total individual income of farm workers is $15,000-$17,499.  This figure even includes income that some farmworkers earn from other jobs in addition to their work in agriculture.

The Federal Register notice of the 2018 poverty guidelines identified the federal poverty line for a family of three as $20,780, meaning that a family with total income below that can be labelled as impoverished. An average farmworker family consists of five to seven members. Adding to the pressure of making ends meet, many agricultural workers not only work to provide for their family but also take on the responsibility of providing for their parents and other family members that are unable to support themselves.

Farmworkers are paid either by the hour or most often by piece rate which is calculated by the number of buckets or bags collected in a day. On rare occasions, workers are paid by the acre. There are many disadvantages of collecting produce by piece rate, such as not having stable pay, receiving a lower pay than minimum wage, feeling pressure to skip proper breaks to cool off from extreme heat, and bringing minors to work to contribute to the haul thereby exposing them to dangerous chemicals.

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Strawberry harvesting in Mount Vernon, Washington 2017

The National Farm Worker Ministry shared on their website the following example:  The piece rate for orange workers in Florida is 85 cents per 90-pound box of oranges. Average productivity for a worker is 8 boxes per hour, which means that during an 8-hour workday, a worker will produce 64 boxes of oranges (or 5,760 pounds of oranges!). According to the 85 cents piece rate, a worker would receive only $6.80 an hour, which is significantly less than Florida’s $7.31 minimum wage (as of 2011).

The Fair Labor Standard Act (FLSA) assures a minimum wage for each hour worked and requires overtime pay to most employees. However, FLSA fully excluded agricultural workers until 1966. To this day it continues to exclude farmworkers in many ways, including offering no right to overtime pay in most states, no entitlement to minimum wage on small farm operations, and children as young as 12 being lawfully allowed to work in the fields.

About one-third of the nation’s farmworkers grind on small farms – those with less than $250,000 in annual sales – that are not required to pay minimum wage.  Any grower can avoid state and federal level employment laws such as minimum wage if an agricultural worker is hired through a third party, like crew leaders or a farm labor contractor. To make matters worse, wage theft is a common issue, where a portion of a worker’s wage is stolen by their employer or supervisor.

Harvesting fresh produce relies on the use of hard working hands. Although machinery or robotic technology is increasingly used in daily agriculture tasks, it is likely that fresh produce will continue to rely on harvest by adept and careful hands.  Yet poverty remains pervasive in the farmworker community, in more ways than just low wages. Farmworkers deal with additional factors that contribute to poverty such as poor employment rates, job security, lack of benefits like paid time off, wage theft, immigration status, and more. Labor laws must be modified to include agriculture workers and provide them with the justice they deserve. With over 2 million agricultural workers in the U.S., the time is NOW to change the laws and provide equal pay rights across the board.

At AFOP Health & Safety we promote healthy living and encourage workers to balance the health of their families, while we continue to fight for improved labor laws for the farmworker community.