Ensure Equal Rights for Food and Farm Workers

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Ensure Equal Rights for Food and Farm Workers

Rural workers, especially Black and Latino workers in rural areas, are more likely to earn less than $15 per hour than their urban counterparts. Rural workers are less likely to live in one of the 30 states that have enacted a minimum wage above the federal minimum wage. 

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In many rural regions, farm and food system work is one of the primary employment options. Federal law exempts agriculture workers from basic workplace protections, and most states follow that precedent. Given that most food and agriculture workers are people of color, the exemption disproportionately harms Black and brown people.

Food and farmworkers have long been on the front lines of disasters. From COVID-19 to climate events, farmworkers often lack protections from both ongoing workplace dangers and disasters. Policy at both the federal and state level has attempted to provide some protections from issues like extreme heat, smoke, and weather events, but more protections are needed. Laws and regulations are also needed to protect food and farmworkers from toxic chemicals and pesticides, which put female farmworkers at increased risk, as exposure can impact reproductive health.

Meatpacking plants and other companies are also increasingly using forced and unpaid labor by incarcerated people, citing labor shortages. Federal law bans products produced by prison labor from interstate commerce, but agricultural products are exempt. Some states have tried to make it easier for companies to use penal labor, while some companies have pitched unpaid work in a processing plant as a rehabilitation program for inmates.

Policy Priorities

  1. Federal: Enact reforms to support farmworkers, including the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a bill that would establish a certified agricultural worker status, increase statutory mandatory working conditions requirements, and change the H-2A temporary worker program by providing a pathway to citizenship, and the Fairness For Farm Workers Act, a bill that would give farmworkers equal rights to overtime pay and minimum wage standards.

  2. Federal: Pass bills like the Essential Workers Bill of Rights. Workers are critical members of rural communities. They keep the nation running and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, not just during a pandemic, but permanently.

  3. State: Enact a minimum wage above the federal minimum wage.

  4. State: Enact a farmworker bill of rights and labor standards.

  5. State: Provide agriculture workers basic labor rights, including minimum wage, overtime pay, and the right to organize.

  6. State: Protect workers from dangerous working conditions, including COVID-19, and weather such as heat and wildfire smoke, which will get worse in a warming climate.

  7. State: Make it unlawful to force an inmate to work against their will.

  8. State: Require prison industries to pay a federal minimum inmate wage to incarcerated persons doing work.

State Examples

  • Georgia (2021 GA SB 24), Iowa (2021 IA HF 122), North Carolina (2021 NC HB 612), and Oregon (2021 OR HB 3551) have all considered legislation to raise the state minimum wage and establish annual cost-of-living updates to ensure that the minimum wage keeps up with the economy.

  • Colorado (2021 CO SB 87) legislators enacted a Farmworker Bill of Rights, which eliminates the minimum wage and overtime exemption for farmworkers; grants the right to organize and join labor unions; and offers new protections against heat stress, illnesses, and injury.

  • New York (2019 NY A 8419) passed a Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act that provides farm laborers with collective bargaining rights, a maximum of 60 hours’ work and minimum 24 hours’ rest per week, overtime pay, unemployment insurance, sanitary temporary housing, and workers’ compensation benefits.

  • Maine (2021 ME LD 1022), Oregon (2021 OR HB 2358), and Washington (2021 WA SB 5172) have all worked on agriculture worker overtime bills with significant bipartisan support.

  • Florida (2019 FL HB 1285) considered a bill to address heat-related illness, and legislation enacted in California (2021 CA AB 73) protects farm- and fieldworkers from dangerous wildfire smoke.

  • New York passed the NYS Health & Essential Rights Act (2021 NY 1034B) that created an Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) state standard for health and safety from COVID-19 and other airborne infectious diseases for employees in the state.

  • New York (2021 NY S416) has considered a bill to make it unlawful to force an inmate to work against their will and to prohibit a public entity from profiting from unpaid inmate labor.

  • Mississippi (2021 MS HB 408) has considered a bill to require prison industries to pay a federal minimum inmate wage to incarcerated persons doing work.

  • In California (2020 CA AB 2147), where incarcerated people are often enlisted to fight wildfires, legislators enacted a law to allow these people to have their records expunged at the end of their sentence, to make it easier for them to find post-prison work in emergency response.