Fairness for Farmworkers bill remains in limbo

Nov. 9, 2016, Boston - Police Officers watch from the steps and balconies of the Massachusetts State House as Bostonians peacefully protest Trump's election. Photo by J. Graham Pearsall/BU News Service

By Aryan Rai
Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON – Massachusetts continues to wait patiently for the bill to address the issues of low wages and the lack of an overtime pay system for farmworkers in the state.

The Fairness for Farmworkers Act (S.1205/H.1979) sits currently with the Legislature’s Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, awaiting a report before the May 13 deadline.

Under the current law, farmworkers can be paid a sub-minimum wage of $8 per hour. This contrasts with the state’s minimum wage which has grown from $11 per hour in 2019 to $13.50 in 2021 and is set to increase to $15 per hour next year.

The law also doesn’t provide overtime pay for farmworkers who work for nearly 10 hours a day or more.

“Given Massachusetts’ stance as a state that likes to promote workers’ rights and being on the forefront of progressive issues, now is the time for the state to provide equity and dignity to these workers who do so much for everybody,” said Claudia Quintero, a staff attorney for the Central West Justice Center. “As a state, we are falling behind other progressive states who have already passed similar legislation.”

New York, Ohio, South Dakota, Washington, Colorado, and California are the few states that have passed bills to include farmworkers under their minimum wage umbrella.

The proposed bill seeks to include farmworkers in the state’s minimum wage category. It also includes overtime pay after working more than 55 hours a week for seasonal farmworkers and 40 hours for those who work all year long.

State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, noted that some portions of the legislation are agreeable, but some might need more work. Legislators support abolishing the $8 sub-minimum wage, but overtime pay is still under deliberation.

“I think there is a lack of consensus on what would qualify as overtime. Different states have taken different approaches,” Sabadosa said. “But there are active conversations amongst the committee, the farmworkers and farm owners, and the various groups representing them about what is the right way forward for Massachusetts.”

Alfonso Neal, executive director at Pioneer Valley Workers Center, an organization that is part of the coalition pushing for the bill, confirmed that agreeing on overtime has been “the biggest challenge.”

“It’s a very tricky situation. Trying to get everyone together at the table to discuss the need for overtime, but then also, listen to the needs of medium to small-sized farm owners about the impact of paying overtime,” said Neal.

Small farm owners already have their hands full with a proposed income surtax. The additional 4% surtax will apply to anyone with a household income above $1 million. Though most farmers don’t earn that, if they sell their land, the tax will most likely apply to the sale and take away a significant chunk.

Massachusetts lawmakers and advocates of the bill will look to take a page out of Oregon’s book as the state recently passed similar legislation after finding a middle ground.

According to the law, Oregon farmworkers will be eligible for overtime pay after 55 hours a week in 2023. But, the threshold will incrementally drop to 40 hours by 2040. Tax credits have also been given to Oregon farm owners based on the number of people they employ and the overtime they pay.

With the bill, Massachusetts will also look to reconcile with a workforce that includes a majority immigrant population or people of color.

Only a minor portion of this immigrant population has the H2A visas, temporary visas given to agricultural workers hired by farm owners. The workers with H2A status earn higher than the $8 sub-minimum wage, but ones without the status must make do with getting paid 59% lesser than the state’s current minimum wage.

“It is an important aspect of it. If we are going to talk about breaking the cycle of racism and addressing the wealth gap, then this bill does have a role to play in that,” Sabadosa said.

This article originally appeared in The Daily Hampshire Gazette.

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