It is estimated that there are at least 3 million farmworkers or agricultural employees in the United States. Within the population, about 58 percent are seasonal agricultural workers, while 42% of them are migrating farmworkers. These farmworkers are spread out throughout the country serving as the backbone of the multi-billion agricultural industry.

Like everywhere else in the world, farmworkers in the United States undergo various challenges that either directly or indirectly affect them. This in-depth guide sheds some light on the common issues facing farmworkers and how the competent employment law attorneys at Stop Unpaid Wages can help. Without further ado, here are the 6 common issues facing farmworkers in the U.S.

  1. Occupational and Health Hazards

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, agriculture is ranked among the most dangerous industries in the country. Farmworkers do monotonous tasks for long periods of time, either bending over planting or harvesting. At times, this tedious work is done in extreme temperatures, including autumn cold and summer heat.

There is also a wide range of occupational and environmental hazards that confront most farmworkers. They include physical environment (rain, sun, heat, organic and inorganic dust), dangerous reptiles and insects (snakes, spiders, etc.), toxic chemicals (pesticides, fungicides, etc.), and sharp tools and equipment.

The commonest occupational injuries suffered by farmworkers include musculoskeletal problems (back problems), skin conditions, eye injuries, cuts, and lacerations. Animal farmworkers as well as those who process animals are exposed to viruses and bacteria. Respiratory conditions and hearing loss are also some of the health problems facing farmworkers across the country.

Estimates by Oxfam American indicate that at least 300,000 farmworkers in the United States get sick each year from pesticides. Such exposure usually occurs when farmworkers are carrying out their routine tasks. They come into contact with toxic pesticides by breathing them, coming in contact with plants with pesticide residue, and having them spayed or spilled accidentally.  Sadly, most cases of pesticide exposure usually go unreported.

Exposure to pesticides can affect farmworkers in serious ways. They can cause persistent headaches, severe nausea and vomiting, dizziness, burns, and rushes. Moreover, prolonged exposure can lead to serious problems such as cancer, sterility, and birth defects.

Besides the farmworkers themselves, their children are also normally exposed to toxic pesticides in various ways, including working alongside their parents, living in close proximity to fields that are sprayed, and from the pesticide residue that their parents bring home with their clothes, etc. This kind of exposure has been linked to various neurodevelopment problems, including autism, Aspergers, low IQ, poor brain function and reflexes.

  1. Exemption from Worker’s Compensation Benefits

As if being subjected to the occupational hazards and tough working conditions above weren’t enough, farmworkers wake to the reality that access to health care is a privilege for the select few. Most farmworkers rarely have access to benefits such as worker’s compensation, occupational rehabilitation, or disability compensation benefits. This is even though many of them fit eligibility programs such as the Food Stamp Program and Medicaid.

Farmworkers are often challenged by the requirements of each individual state. Within the U.S. and U.S. territories, thirty-six states are required by law to offer worker’s compensation benefits. In other 17 states, they offer worker’s compensation as an option. Besides being unable to access worker’s compensation benefits, most farmworkers are not able to secure Social Security payments.

When injured, most farmworkers face lots of barriers when trying to seek health care. Not only do most of them lack health insurance, but they also lack money to pay for treatment. Most of them don’t get sick leave either, and they fear losing wages by taking some time off to seek treatment. This further worsens their health condition, bringing in more serious problems.

In extreme cases, some workers report being discouraged from seeking out external medical care, the goal (by employers) being to keep injury rate statistics and medical costs down. Moreover, the chances of getting access to proper medical care are quite low.

In a previous study, it was established that there are various barriers that impede farmworkers from accessing cost-effective primary health care and social services. These barriers include limited means of transportation, poverty, low literacy, cultural and language barriers, and lack of free time. The small percentage of migrant farmworkers that get access to health care services are faced with further problems, including prejudice, lack of time-efficient healthcare delivery systems, and the medical referral system.

  1. Difficult Living Conditions

Most farmworkers live in deplorable conditions. Overcrowding in dwellings is a common problem, with different surveys indicating that about 65-85% of units are filled beyond capacity. This means that farmworkers were often sleeping in the kitchen or living rooms floors.

Besides overcrowding, research also indicates that the available housing to farmworkers is overwhelmingly substandard. A huge number of farmworkers live in dwellings with considerable structural damage. About one-third of the dwellings exhibited sagging features on the floors, ceilings and walls or holes in the roof, or both.

Even though housing regulations exist for migrant farmworkers, the implementation of migrant housing regulations is limited. Surveys indicate that over 25 percent of migrant camps violate regulations for sufficient bedroom space and laundry facility. Additionally, it was found out that 1 out of 5 camps had obvious signs of rodent infestation.

Moreover, findings indicate that housing exposes farmworkers to harmful toxicants, ranging from pesticides and lead to allergens such as mildew, mold, and rodent and insect dander. What’s more is that most farmworkers and their families are exposed to structural and electrical hazards.

  1. Separation and Isolation

Many farmworkers, migrant as well as seasonal, are separated from their families when they move from their homes in search of greener pastures. Recent U.S. immigration policies have worsened this problem, as many immigrant farmworkers are forced to stay in the United States throughout the year, rather than risk being caught trying to cross the border.

To add salt to injury, migrant farmworkers have to endure a range of social injustices. Due to their residency and/or mobile status, many migrant farmworkers report undergoing prejudice, hostility, harassment, and discrimination in the communities in which they work and live. To make matters worse, they normally work long hours, with little diversion or entertainment. As a result, they have increased rates of stress, depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems.

Another problem that results from isolation and separation from family is an increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases, including, Gonorrhea, Syphilis, and HIV. This comes about when farmworkers solicit the services of sex workers. Besides STDs, farmworkers are also at high risk of infectious diseases, such as hepatitis and tuberculosis, due to poor and crowded living conditions.

  1. Very Low Wages

Farmworkers take part in the planting, cultivation and the harvesting of the greatest abundance of food known in the society. They work hard to bring in enough food to feed the whole country and enough food to export to other countries.

The ironic, tragic thing is that the same farmworkers who work hard to make this tremendous contribution represent some of the most economically disadvantaged people in the United States. Most of them usually struggle to make ends meet and often are the times when they do not have enough food or money for themselves and their families.

According to a previous National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) report, 23 percent of farmworker families had total family income levels below the national poverty line. Consequently, farmers have the highest poverty rates among other workers in the country. Income for farmworkers ranges from $10,000 to 18,000 annually. 

One of the reasons why farm jobs are usually low wage is because of the federal law regarding minimum wage and overtime pay requirements. Farmworkers who work on large farms are entitled to a minimum wage and overtime pay. Farmworkers who work on small farms are not as lucky as they are excluded from minimum wage and overtime pay requirements.

Farmworkers who work on small farms constitute about one-third of the country’s farmworkers. Unluckily, they are not entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay. According to federal law, these farmworkers are not entitled to get paid time and one half their usual pay rate for hours worked over 40 hours per week.

Besides small farmworkers, female workers are another class of disadvantaged farmworkers. In most regions, female workers earn less compared to their male counterparts. In addition to that, reports of harassment and sexist comments are common from female workers.

Similarly, people of color are another class of disadvantaged farmworkers. Statistics indicate that non-whites are over-represented in the low-paying farm jobs, often earning less than whites. Three things have helped keep wages for immigrant farmworkers low: Consolidation, immigration policies and free trade agreements.

The U.S. government has devised immigration policies that bring in a new group of farmworkers willing to work in the country for low wages. Efforts by immigrants to have their pay raised is often undermined by the repetitive introduction of new workers to substitute protesting farmworkers. 

What’s more is that farmworkers coming outside of the United States, who are successful in getting documentation as part of the H-2A program, are not safeguarded by the federal laws that administer farmworker labor. Immigrant farmworkers do not usually have the right to unionize or bargain collectively. 

Low wages for farmworkers are an industry issue that has a number of health impacts. Food insecurity is one of the problems directly associated with low wages. According to findings by the California Institute for Rural Studies, about 66 percent of Salinas Valley farmworkers and 45 percent of Fresno County farmworkers are food insecure. This is in spite of living/working in two of the most agriculturally productive regions in the United States.

As for those farmworkers living in unincorporated regions and rural areas, they do not have access to healthy foods. Given that only a few farm works own private cars and with little public transportation available, it becomes even more difficult for most farm owners to gain access to food. Considering the low wages they earn, affording food is another thing altogether

Even though federal law doesn’t grant small farmworkers entitlement to minimum wage and overtime pay, it doesn’t necessarily mean that these hardworking people aren’t entitled to fair wages. Those who feel that their employer is acting in bad faith can seek advice from an employment law attorney. Stop Unpaid Wages offers legal assistance to farmworkers in California and helps them hold farm employers accountable.

  1. Unpaid Wages

The same National Agricultural Workers Survey found that about 83 percent of farmworkers are paid by the hour, about 11 percent were paid by the piece, and about 6 percent were salaried or had other payment methods.

After bracing the above 5 challenges, farmworkers face the final blow – not being paid what they rightfully deserve. In the case of farmworkers, labor laws are feebly implemented at best, and at worst, farmworkers are underpaid, unpaid, or work under modern-day slavery conditions. Even though farmworkers at large farms are entitled to a minimum wage and overtime pay, cases of forced overtime and unpaid wages for overtime are often reported.

Another thing that further worsens farmworkers’ economic situation is the seasonality of agricultural work. Farm work is only needed on a seasonal basis, i.e., during planting and harvesting. Even if farmworkers get to receive an hourly amount that is above the minimum wage required by law, they may not receive even a single dollar during those other times when there is no farm work. Moreover, they may not receive payment during those work days they are calling off due to adverse weather conditions.

Wage theft, in which a portion of a farm worker’s wage is stolen by their supervisor or employer is also a common issue among farmworkers. Sadly, oversight on this is lenient. Luckily, Stop Unpaid Wages is always ready to represent Californian farmworkers who are legally battling their employers for unpaid wages.

When to File a Claim for Unpaid Wages

You can file a claim for unpaid wages if:

  • You work at a large farm, and your employer has failed to pay you minimum wage,
  • Your employer has failed to pay you premium overtime for hours worked beyond the legal straight hour maximum (over eight hours under some state laws, or over forty hours in a workweek under federal laws).
  • Your employer has disallowed you from taking required breaks,
  • Your employer has failed to pay you for break time provided by law,
  • Your employer has failed to pay you for accrued or untaken vacation time if required by state law,
  • Your employer refuses to pay for travel time during a workday that is related to work.

Note that working comprises more than the time a farm worker spends doing actual labor. California, for instance, hours worked include:

  • The time you spend traveling in the course of your employment, i.e. driving to another location or office),
  • The time you spend preparing for labor, such as putting on necessary protective gear,
  • The time you spend performing off-the-clock work before or after your scheduled shift begins,
  • The time you spend when working overtime, regardless of whether or not your employer authorized it,
  • The time you spend working during scheduled breaks.

Besides filing a claim for your unpaid wages, you can also file a claim for your severance pay. Severance agreements are contracts between employers and employees that set out the terms of payment at the time an employee’s tenure ends. This agreement typically includes a set amount of compensation to be paid out to the employee. The compensation may include a set amount of wages, commission, bonuses, unpaid vacation time, and/or other compensation.

If your employer fails to pay the payment for all the time you have worked, you have a right to claim what you are owed. However, all of the issues revolving unpaid wages are not clear cut claims. For instance, not all travel time must be paid for, and even a minimum wage claim can be complicated, especially if you receive commissions or you work for tips. This is where a lawyer’s assistance can come in handy.

During your initial consultation, our competent attorneys at Stop Unpaid Wages will help you familiarize with your rights and help you figure out whether or not your employer’s conduct is a violation of federal or state law. Once it is determined that you have a valid case, we will then develop a plan to protect your rights.

Understanding Your Options

If your employer has violated hour and wage laws, you are well within your right to file a lawsuit. However, in many situations, you may have other options on the table. For instance; you can contact your employer informally and try to negotiate a settlement of your wage claim.

Another option would be to file a claim for the unsettled wages against your employer with the department of labor in your state. The state labor department may then hold a hearing to issue a finding on your claim. This option is less expensive and quicker compared to filing a lawsuit.

If you are not sure about the option to take, our employment lawyer will review your case and compare the two options so you can make an informed decision about the next step to take. Our attorney will also give you an evaluation of your probability of succeeding in any of the above two options, as well as the cost implications of undertaking each of them. The attorney will also inform you of what you are likely to recover in damages, as well as the attorney fees you may be required to pay in order to pursue those damages.

In addition to employment law attorney’s fees, you may be required to pay other costs associated with your lawsuit or other legal action. These costs can include filing fees, expert witness fees, deposition costs, etc. Our attorney will give you a run-down of all the costs you will be expected to meet.

Don’t Let Your Employer Get Away with Your Wages

Most employers will look for ways to deny you your wages. Their insurance companies, on the other hand, will look for red flags and loopholes so that they can deny your claim. Both employers and insurance companies also know which employment law firms that are likely to settle for less and which firms will fight tooth and nail to get their clients what they deserve. All employers and insurance companies know that Stop Unpaid Wages falls squarely into the latter category.

If your employer has denied you your wages, don’t throw in the towel. Let our group of experienced and aggressive attorneys fight this injustice all the way to trial. With extensive industry knowledge and years of experience representing employees in California, attorneys at Stop Unpaid Wages have the legal expertise to build the strongest possible case on your behalf.

Finding Unpaid Wages Help Near Me

If you strongly believe that your employer has fallen short on following the state or federal law in payment of your wages in California, you need help. Our competent employment law attorneys at Stop Unpaid Wages will assess your options under the state law and will work hard to pursue every dollar your employer owes you. Call us today at  424-781-8411 for a free consultation or visit our website for more information regarding our legal services and fees. You can also call and schedule visit our offices at 554 S. San Vicente Blvd. Suite 160-M, Los Angeles, CA 90048 for a face to face consultation.