NORTHAMPTON – City Council on Thursday passed first reading of a resolution approving the Fairness for Farm Workers Act that passes through the state legislature.
The bill (S.1205, H.1979) removes the minimum wage of $ 8 for farm workers and raises their wages to the state minimum wage – currently $ 13.50 an hour – while guaranteeing hours and a half extra. A second reading by the council is scheduled for October 21.
Ahead of the unanimous vote, councilors denounced the exploitation of farm laborers in the form of unpaid overtime and meager wages, while acknowledging that most Hampshire County farmers pay more than the minimum wage .
“It’s time to make things fair” for all farm workers in the state, said Ward 6 Councilor Marianne LaBarge, one of the resolution’s three sponsors. “I find there is a racial problem with that, and that bothers me. That bothers me.”
The resolution proposed by Councilors LaBarge, Rachel Maiore of Ward 7 and Michael Quinlan of Ward 1 indicates that Hampshire County has 692 farms and 1,267 farm workers. There are about 13,000 farm workers statewide, and they “are overwhelmingly immigrants from Latin America.”
“Massachusetts farm workers are currently denied the wage and hour protections offered to other workers, bogging down farm workers and their families in unfair working and living conditions,” the resolution said. “Agricultural workers additionally face unique workplace hazards and health issues resulting from long working hours, exposure to pesticides and a physically demanding and fast-paced work environment. “
Audi Gonzalez, a Guatemalan immigrant and farm worker, spoke through a translator during the public comment period of the meeting.
“It’s really not fair that the pay is so low. … Especially with families, it is not possible to survive with this amount, ”said Gonzalez. “Ever since I arrived in this country, it has been a dream for me that people appreciate the work of agricultural workers and take it seriously. … People see us as machines.
Expressing support for the resolution, Ward 2 Councilor Karen Foster said, “There is a strong American desire for cheap food, and it causes a lot of suffering.
An average Massachusetts farm worker who works 36 hours a week and earns minimum wage earns about $ 25,000 a year, according to a 2020 report from the UMass Amherst Political Economy Research Institute. Earning only the wage below the minimum drops the annual income to less than $ 15,000.
“For the average farm worker with overtime, an extension of overtime protections could increase their weekly income by 16.7%,” while each farm would see an increase of less than 2% in operating expenses, the report by Dr Jeanette Wicks-Lim. “The price of an average gallon of milk would drop from $ 3.50 to $ 3.52. The price of a pound of asparagus would drop from $ 2.50 to $ 2.51. “
The Fairness for Agricultural Workers Act offers seasonal agricultural workers one and a half times their regular rate of pay for work performed more than 55 hours per week, and establishes the right to one day of rest each week for agricultural workers seasonal workers, by providing compensation for overtime hours and a half for those who choose to work on the day of rest.
Citing March statistics from the Connecticut River Valley Farmworker Health Program, the resolution states that “twice as many farm worker families now live in extreme poverty compared to other families.” The health program said 80% of its members did not have health insurance in 2019.
Harris Freeman, professor of labor and employment law at Western New England University, told the council he “helped prepare the bill” and had the support of the representative of the State Lindsay Sabadosa and Senator Jo Comerford, both Democrats. from Northampton.
The status quo is “not in accordance with the laws, morals and politics of our city or the state of Massachusetts,” Freeman said, urging councilors to support the effort.
Brian Steele can be reached at [email protected]