New Jersey lawmakers want a $15 minimum wage, but not for farmworkers

Pickers and harvesters would earn just $12.50, without key labor protections. Advocates aren’t happy.

A New Jersey lawmaker wants to raise the minimum wage for farmworkers in his state to $12.50 an hour—which would make it one of the highest such rates in the country.

You might think that sounds like a pretty good deal, but farmworker advocates are displeased. That’s because the potential raise, which Politico reports is being pushed by Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, a Democrat, would be included in a bill to raise the minimum for most other workers in the Garden State—those who don’t pick, harvest and irrigate—to $15 an hour. Currently, farmworkers, along with every other minimum-wage worker in New Jersey, are subject to the state’s $8.85 minimum.

The issue of paying those who work the state’s prodigious cranberry bogs, blueberry orchards, and tomato fields is part of the larger, state-wide negotiation over a new minimum wage. Democratic Governor Phil Murphy wants to see all Jerseyites on a $15 minimum. Democratic Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin has sponsored a bill that would have farmworkers covered under that minimum by 2029—five years after most everyone else in the state gets the boost. Sweeney, who has yet to introduce a bill of his own, told Politico that a wage bill without a farmworker exemption would put his state’s “farming community out of business.” (His office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Farmworker pay is regulated by a patchwork of laws that vary from state to state. Across the country, they and most other workers earn at least $7.25 an hour, which is the federal minimum. A handful of states, such as Nebraska, Maine and Vermont, exclude farmworkers from local laws that guarantee higher wages for everybody else, according to data provided to The New Food Economy by Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for farmworker protections. (Some states, like Arizona, California, Hawaii, New York, and Washington, include farmworkers in their minimum wage laws, which allow them to earn at least $10.50 an hour.)

$12.50 an hour might sound like a good deal, but farmworker advocates are displeased.

Advocates say the real problem here isn’t lower wages. It’s that farmworkers—laboring in fields and orchards, often hand-harvesting at piece rates—are already exempt from many existing labor protections. As we’ve reported, they have long been excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which protects employees’ right to form unions. When the law was passed in 1935, most farmworkers were black. Farmworker justice advocates have since argued that the exclusion was a political concession made by then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, which needed the votes of southern Dixiecrats to pass the law. 

Farmworkers aren’t covered by overtime provisions in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which means they don’t get paid time-and-a-half when they work over 40 hours a week. (As with minimum-wage laws, some states have their own overtime laws for farmworkers.) Many kinds of farmworkers are also exempt from the act’s provision of a minimum wage. They include those employed on small farms, where the owners pay for less than 500 “man days” of labor, or roughly seven full-time workers, per calendar quarter—as well as range hands, child farmworkers, and those who worked on a farm for less than 13 weeks the year before.

A bill introduced in June by California’s Democratic Senator Kamala Harris and Congressman Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, The Fairness for Farm Workers Act, would amend the act to end those minimum wage and overtime exemptions. The bill, which hasn’t yet been reintroduced in the new Congress, was backed by several advocacy groups.

The real problem here isn’t wages—it’s legal protections.

Bruce Goldstein, the president of Farmworker Justice, says he would like to see those structural changes made to protect workers. He points out that the New Jersey proposal is a raise, but it’s also a minimum-wage exemption—the kind that other states use, he says, to hurt farmworkers. “It would be a continuation of a long history of discrimination against farmworkers,” he says. “Most farmworkers are immigrants and people of color. It’s no coincidence that this discrimination, in labor protections, affects those people.”

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.