June 10, 2023

DS Duke

Global Business In World

The farmworker wage gap continued in 2020: Farmworkers and H-2A workers earned very low wages during the pandemic, even compared with other low-wage workers

9 min read
Key takeaways: More than two million farmworkers were deemed “essential” amid the pandemic in order...

Key takeaways:

  • More than two million farmworkers were deemed “essential” amid the pandemic in order to sustain food supply chains, but the latest wage data show that farmworkers were not rewarded adequately: They earned just $14.62 per hour on average in 2020, far less than even some of the lowest-paid workers in the U.S. labor force.
  • At this wage rate, farmworkers earned just under 60{e5fab30bc1af2ab9862fe5c16f5be581fd243b6ad78468b48e940aadfb2b849d} of what comparable workers outside of agriculture made in 2020—a wage gap that was virtually unchanged since the previous year. They also earned less than workers with the lowest levels of education.
  • The wage paid to most farmworkers with H-2A visas—known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR)—was even lower, with a national average of $13.68 per hour. (The AEWR is based on a mandated wage standard that varies by region and is intended to prevent underpayment.) But many H-2A farmworkers earned far less in some of the biggest H-2A states. In Florida and Georgia—where a quarter of all H-2A jobs were located in 2020—H-2A workers were paid the lowest state AEWR, at $11.71 per hour.
  • Farmworkers are employed in one of the most hazardous jobs in the entire U.S. labor market and suffer very high rates of wage and hour violations, and the majority of farmworkers who are unauthorized migrants or on H-2A visas are even worse off, with limited labor rights and heightened vulnerability to wage theft and other abuses due to their immigration status. Congress should take immediate action to improve labor standards for all farmworkers and provide migrant farmworkers with a path to citizenship.

Near the start of the pandemic in 2020, numerous work and travel restrictions were implemented in the United States to slow the spread of COVID-19. But for most workers, including farmworkers, options like remote work were either not permitted or feasible. The more than two million farmworkers who grow, harvest, and pack the crops that end up on grocery store shelves were deemed “essential” and expected to work to keep food supply chains up and running.

Were those farmworkers ultimately rewarded and valued for their massive contributions to society? It appears not—the latest wage data show that farmworkers continued to earn far less than even some of the lowest-paid workers in the U.S. labor force, which suggests their important work continues to be undervalued. This post reviews the wages that farmworkers earned in 2020 relative to other comparable sets of workers.

Who are farmworkers?

First, a quick note on the size of the farmworker population and their characteristics. Preliminary data from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW) show that average annual employment of workers who are employed on farms that report to state unemployment insurance agencies was 1.3 million in 2020—essentially unchanged from 2019. QCEW also estimated that there were an additional 400,000 “wage and salary” farmworkers not included in their data, suggesting total average employment of 1.7 million in 2020.

However, it is difficult to get an exact count of the number of farmworkers. While the QCEW reports average employment, that underestimates the number of unique farmworkers due to seasonality and turnover. The Census of Agriculture (COA) asks farm operators and owners how many workers they employ directly; in 2017, farmers reported hiring 2.4 million farmworkers. However, the COA does not report workers who are brought to farms by nonfarm employers such as nonfarm labor contractors, and double counts workers employed by two farms, so 2.4 million is not a count of unique farmworkers.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) reports the characteristics of crop farmworkers, but not their number, and excludes from the survey farmworkers who are migrants employed through the H-2A temporary work visa program for agriculture (a program that allows farm employers to hire temporary migrant workers with H-2A visas if they anticipate a shortage of U.S. workers to fill temporary and seasonal jobs). According to the latest NAWS data, half of the non-H-2A crop farmworkers were unauthorized immigrants. And according to the State Department, there were more than 213,000 H-2A workers employed in the United States in 2020, who worked for an average of six months out of the year, representing roughly one-tenth of workers employed on U.S. crop farms.

Farmworkers are employed in one of the most hazardous jobs in the entire U.S. labor market and suffer very high rates of wage and hour violations. But unauthorized and H-2A farmworkers are even worse off because they have limited labor rights due to their immigration status, which increases their vulnerability to wage theft and other abuses. Unauthorized immigrants who speak up about unfair treatment or abuse in the workplace risk employer retaliation in the form of deportation. In the case of H-2A workers, they are not permitted to change employers and are thus practically indentured to them. The half of farmworkers who are unauthorized plus 10{e5fab30bc1af2ab9862fe5c16f5be581fd243b6ad78468b48e940aadfb2b849d} of farmworkers with H-2A visas mean that only 40{e5fab30bc1af2ab9862fe5c16f5be581fd243b6ad78468b48e940aadfb2b849d} of the farm workforce are U.S. citizens and legal immigrants with full rights and agency in the labor market. Having the majority of the farm workforce employed without basic workplace rights puts downward pressure on labor standards for all workers.

Farmworkers earn lower wages than comparable and low-wage workers

The most reliable data on farmworker earnings comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), which conducts the Farm Labor Survey (FLS) quarterly, and the results of which are published semiannually in USDA’s Farm Labor report series. The minimum wage that employers are required to pay to H-2A farmworkers is in most cases the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), which varies by region and is set by DOL based on the average hourly earnings of nonsupervisory field and livestock workers, as reported by farm operators in the FLS. DOL uses the FLS data to set H-2A wages so they reflect current real-world trends in the farm labor market.

Despite some documented real increases in wages the past few years, the latest data show the wages of farmworkers are extremely low by any measure, even when compared with similarly situated nonfarm workers and workers with the lowest levels of education (see Figure A).

Figure A

Figure A

In 2020, the average wage of all nonsupervisory farmworkers was $14.62 per hour, according to USDA, which was a 3.2{e5fab30bc1af2ab9862fe5c16f5be581fd243b6ad78468b48e940aadfb2b849d} increase from what farmworkers earned per hour in 2019, after adjusting for inflation. The farmworker wage of $14.62 per hour is just half (51{e5fab30bc1af2ab9862fe5c16f5be581fd243b6ad78468b48e940aadfb2b849d}) of the average hourly wage for all workers in 2020, which stands at $28.78 per hour. The average wage for production and nonsupervisory nonfarm workers—the most appropriate cohort of nonagricultural workers to compare with farmworkers—was $24.67.

In other words, farmworkers earned just under 60{e5fab30bc1af2ab9862fe5c16f5be581fd243b6ad78468b48e940aadfb2b849d} of what production and nonsupervisory workers outside of agriculture earned. In 2018 and 2019, USDA referred to this wage gap between farmworker and nonfarm worker wages as “slowly shrinking, but still substantial.” In 2020, the farmworker wage gap remained substantial and virtually unchanged from the previous year: 59.3{e5fab30bc1af2ab9862fe5c16f5be581fd243b6ad78468b48e940aadfb2b849d} in 2020 versus 59.5{e5fab30bc1af2ab9862fe5c16f5be581fd243b6ad78468b48e940aadfb2b849d} in 2019.

Farmworkers have very low levels of educational attainment. According to the NAWS, 30{e5fab30bc1af2ab9862fe5c16f5be581fd243b6ad78468b48e940aadfb2b849d} completed the 10th, 11th, or 12th grade, and 10{e5fab30bc1af2ab9862fe5c16f5be581fd243b6ad78468b48e940aadfb2b849d} completed some education beyond high school. But farmworkers still make less than the two groups of workers with the lowest levels of education in the United States: Nonsupervisory farmworkers at $14.62 per hour earned 44 cents an hour less than the average wage earned by workers without a high school diploma ($15.06), and farmworkers earned roughly $5 less per hour than the average wage earned by workers with only a high school diploma ($20.09).

The nationwide average hourly AEWR wage for H-2A workers was even lower than the wage for all nonsupervisory farmworkers in 2020—meaning the gap between what many H-2A farmworkers and nonagricultural workers earn is even wider.

Although the AEWR varies by region, DOL reported that the nationwide average hourly AEWR in 2020 was $13.68 per hour. While the AEWR was higher in 19 states—the highest being in seven states where the AEWR was between $14.77 and $15.83 in 2020—it was lower than the national average in many states. In Florida and Georgia—the top two states for H-2A employment, and where a quarter of all H-2A jobs were located in 2020—H-2A workers were paid the lowest overall state AEWR, at $11.71 per hour.

To reiterate, a quarter of all H-2A farmworkers in 2020 were paid the lowest permissible wage under the AEWR. They earned wages that are even lower than the H-2A national average wage—wage rates that are at or near poverty levels. These are not exorbitant salaries that can be cut without harming farmworkers, contrary to what agribusiness wants the public and lawmakers to believe.

Farmworker wages are so low, in fact, that even a nominal increase in the price that consumers pay for fruits and vegetables—$25 per family per year—would raise farmworker wages by 40{e5fab30bc1af2ab9862fe5c16f5be581fd243b6ad78468b48e940aadfb2b849d} and lift many out of poverty.

Farmworkers deserve better pay, more protections, and a path to citizenship

The expectations placed on farmworkers by employers and the federal government during the pandemic have required farmworkers to take on a significant amount of risk to themselves and their families, and many have paid the price. Countless media reports have attested to the rapid spread of COVID-19 among food-chain workers and farmworkers in particular, including in employer-provided housing. The Purdue Food and Agriculture Vulnerability Index estimates that nearly 600,000 workers in agriculture have tested positive for COVID-19.

Despite this grim reality, no federal action was taken to protect farmworkers, who were designated as essential but continued to be paid some of the lowest wages in the U.S. labor market. Instead, the only government action taken was to help employers, by making it easier for them to hire H-2A farmworkers earning low wages. Swift policy action at the federal level, outlined below, is required to improve conditions for farmworkers and raise their pay—these changes are feasible and not complicated.

  • Congress must act to provide undocumented farmworkers with a path to citizenship and reform the H-2A program so that temporary migrant workers have protections from retaliation and a path to citizenship, and earn wages that adequately reflect market rates and do not undercut labor standards.
  • Some states have already taken steps to improve conditions for farmworkers, for example by passing laws or emergency regulations to better protect them from heat illness, required that they be paid overtime, and provided with basic labor rights. More states should follow suit, but Congress also needs to pass legislation that would set federal, nationwide standards in all of these areas.
  • Congress should provide adequate resources to fund staffing and enforcement at DOL’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) and WHD leadership should prioritize enforcement in agriculture to better protect farmworkers, given that the vast majority (over 70{e5fab30bc1af2ab9862fe5c16f5be581fd243b6ad78468b48e940aadfb2b849d}) of federal labor standards investigations of farms detect violations like wage theft, but the number of WHD investigations on farms has dropped sharply because WHD is woefully underfunded and understaffed.

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