Farm employers in the United States have been required to pay $76 million in back wages to 154,000 workers over the past 20 years according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute. During this period, the US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division conducted more than 31,000 investigations on US farms and issued $63 million in civil penalties for workplace violations.
Those violations, however, are likely just a fraction of the problem, because the Labor Department only investigates about 100 of the 107,000 farm employers every month – which means there is just a one percent chance that any one of them will be investigated in any given year. According to the Report, many more violations are likely never reported because the majority of farmworkers lack an immigration status, making them fearful of retaliation and deportation. In 2019, there were just 780 investigators, fewer than nearly 50 years ago.
In general, US farmworkers struggle with some of the lowest wages in the country and suffer an above-average rate of workplace injuries, the report found – issues that have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.
Farmworkers are vital to food supply chains. Their work is essential, however, because many are either undocumented immigrants or in the country on temporary work visas, they do not have access to US social safety nets like health insurance, unemployment benefits or stimulus cheques. In addition, many workers live on the farms themselves, and inadequate or overcrowded housing increases the risk of COVID-19 infection.
EPI’s analysis found that farm labor contractors, third-party agencies that recruit and staff workers for farms – are the worst wage theft offenders, accounting for some 25 percent of all federal wage theft violations. These labor contractors keep a percentage of the wages earned by the workers, and farm operators do not provide the farmworkers who work on their farms with fringe benefits because they are employees of the contractor. Because farm labor contractors already account for 14 percent of agricultural employment in the US and their use is rising, the Report calls for major policy change to crack down on violators.
If you’re a farmworker and are a victim of wage theft, please call the attorneys at Pechman Law Group at 212-583-9500 for a free consultation to see if we can help.