Originally published in the Maine AFL-CIO News on June 2, 2023
The Maine AFL-CIO applauds the Legislature’s Labor & Housing Committee for advancing a bill that will improve wages and working conditions for thousands of farmworkers in Maine.
“For too long, farmworkers have struggled with low wages and lack of rights and protections that other workers enjoy. This legislation will ensure that workers in the agricultural industry are finally eligible for our state minimum wage and that they are protected from retaliation when discussing wages and working conditions amongst each other,” said Matt Schlobohm, Executive Director of the Maine AFL-CIO. “This is a compromise that will meaningfully improve the lives of thousands of hardworking people in Maine who put food on our tables. We look forward to it becoming law.”
Workers in agriculture were intentionally excluded from benefits and protections in the National Labor Relations Act, which protects the rights of workers to unionize and collectively bargain. Farmworkers were also originally exempted from wage and overtime protections in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.
Although current law requires that farmworkers be paid at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, they are still not eligible to be paid overtime when working over 40 hours a week. They are also not considered employees under Maine law, so they are not eligible for the state minimum wage of $13.80 and are not entitled to overtime when working over 40 hours a week.
House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross introduced LD 398 and LD 525 to fix these historic inequities and grant farmworkers the right to unionize and be overtime eligible. A stakeholder group met repeatedly on these bills.
The amended version of LD 398 is a compromise that will officially – and finally – make farmworkers employees under Maine labor law. This means that the measure will make them eligible for the state minimum wage of $13.80 and be protected from working more than 80 hours of overtime in any consecutive two-week period. In addition, the amendment will grant farm workers the right to engage in “concerted activity” to improve their wages and working conditions without fear of intimidation or retaliation. This includes:
- Workers discussing wages, working conditions, terms of employment and/or other matters related to their employment amongst themselves;
- Conferring with their employer with regard to wages, working conditions, terms of employment and other matters related to their employment;
- Conferring with organizations that provide services to agricultural employees; government agencies and the press;
- Publicizing complaints about wages, working conditions, terms of employment and other matters related to their employment, and
- Taking any action to file, prosecute, testify about, participate in the investigation of or support in any way a complaint about a violation by an agricultural employer
Farmworkers are some of the lowest paid workers in Maine and the most exploited. A 2020 report found that nationally farm employers stole $76 million in wages from 154,000 workers over 20 years. Agriculture also ranks among the most dangerous sectors with one of the highest fatal injury rates. Workers are vulnerable to sexual abuse, extreme heat waves, toxic pesticides and accidents with heavy machinery.
The committee also voted to carry over LD 525, which would give farmworkers the right to unionize, until the next legislative session.
Andy O’Brien is the communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO, a statewide federation of 160 local unions representing 40,000 workers. However, his opinions are his own and don’t represent the views of his employer. He is also a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445.