With a new Congressional term kicking off, the agricultural lobby will fight to bring the Farm Workforce Modernization Act back for approval to alleviate the shortage of farmworkers across the country. The bill is now in limbo after Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives. Despite this, lawmakers could take up other measures, such as increasing farmworker minimum wage, that would help address the shortage—and more importantly, improve labor conditions for these workers.
Net farm income for last year across the United States is projected to be $160.5 billion, up from $141 billion in 2021. Although 10 percent of this income is from government support to help farmers recruit enough workers, this investment has done nothing to address the root causes of the farmworker shortage.
Agricultural work is not just poorly paid, it is also dangerous, with a fatal injury rate four times higher than other private sector workers.
Approximately 2.5 million workers toil in U.S. farms each year. In the last two decades, farm workers have lost more than $65 million dollars in wage theft; few standards exist to protect their wages. According to the 2019-2020 National Agricultural Workers Survey, at least 70 percent of farmworkers are foreign-born and 68 percent were born in Mexico and Central America.
American farmers are once again speaking up about their inability to secure enough laborers for the harvest of hand-picked crops. Chronic labor shortages of farmworkers regularly lead to rising production costs, empty shelves and higher food prices.
But there’s an effective solution to prevent such shortages: paying farm workers a higher wage. Recent research indicates that raising minimum wages improves the recruitment and retention of low-wage workers, including agricultural workers.
Today, the federal minimum wage for agricultural workers is set at $7.25 per hour, lagging behind the thirty states and the District of Columbia that have a higher minimum wage and the forty-seven cities that have adopted minimum wages higher than their state minimum wage.
Agricultural work is not just poorly paid, it is also dangerous, with a fatal injury rate four times higher than other private sector workers. Work schedules in this industry include early mornings, weekends, holidays and more than forty hours per week with insufficient or unreliable pay.
The hazards of farm labor include working outdoors, dying in extreme heat (which is increasing due to climate change), enduring inadequate and overcrowded living facilities and lacking access to adequate health care, which is the case, for example, for the half million farmworkers based in California.
This is why raising wages is only the first step for improving the working conditions of farm workers. In addition to harsh working conditions, these workers are seldom allowed to claim overtime or have collective bargaining rights due to exemptions in the Fair Labor Standards Act and the National Labor Relations Act. The lack of basic labor rights leaves many farmworkers unprotected from retaliation should they attempt to form unions. Having equal access to collective bargaining in all states would offer farm workers the opportunity to negotiate wages, hours and benefits, thus making agricultural employment more attractive to a diverse pool of workers.
We need to advocate for federal changes to the National Labor Relations Act to offer all workers the right to union representation and support local living wage ordinances that mandate at least $15 dollars per hour.
While it may be too late to pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, it is never too late to begin imagining pieces of legislation that would truly help to raise the wages of all farmworkers. We can begin by supporting legislation that would extend federal overtime protections to agricultural workers.
We could also ask our legislators to support the Raise the Wage Act, a bill introduced in the House of Representatives last year. If passed, this bill would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, achieving a modest and adequate standard of living for all workers. And we could support the Fight for $15 and a Union, a decade-old labor rights movement. Although these are just modest solutions, we need to act soon because one thing is for sure: the continued exploitation of 2.5 million farmworkers is unacceptable, and we can do better.