End the Farmworker Exclusion from Overtime Protections

by Teresa Romero

There are roughly 2.4 million farmworkers who work day in and day out to plant and harvest the crops and care for the livestock we all rely on for our food security. Unfortunately, these essential workers lack essential legal protections extended to many others in our workforce.

In order to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938, Congress and the Roosevelt Administration agreed to a so-called “grand compromise” that excluded farm and domestic workers—who were overwhelmingly Black—from the protections being afforded to other workers. Members of Congress at the time were explicit that they did not believe Black people deserved the same wage protections as white people and that they wanted to preserve the southern plantation-style economic system. That was wrong then, when most farmworkers were Black, and it is wrong now, when most farmworkers are Latino. It is past time to end the exclusion of farmworkers from overtime protections.

Over the years, there were efforts to expand protections for agricultural workers, but it took until 1966 for Congress to finally amend the FLSA to include some agricultural employers in a minimum wage requirement—although it was still only a subminimum wage requirement. In 1977, Congress eliminated the subminimum wage and extended coverage to a greater number of agricultural employers. But more than 80 years later, the FLSA continues to exclude some smaller agricultural employers from the minimum wage requirements, and farmworkers remain fully excluded from the overtime protections.

Agricultural work is honorable work and should not be treated as inherently undesirable. Many of our members enjoy their work and recognize its valuable contribution. Agricultural workers ask only that they be treated with respect, paid a decent wage, and provided with the protections offered to other workers. In learning his state would recognize overtime protections for farmworkers, Jorge Maldonado, a United Farm Workers member in Washington, said, “Winning overtime pay is a victory of equality, overturning hundreds of years of injustice. It is a historic moment, and I am happy to have been a part of it. We cannot progress if we are building on the foundation of injustice. Overtime pay is a step among other protections that is needed to protect agricultural workers.”

Agricultural workers ask only that they be treated with respect, paid a decent wage, and provided with the protections offered to other workers.

For farmworkers, the ability to be paid overtime would increase economic security and could help empower women facing sexual harassment. Greater economic security would also help farmworkers access safer housing and health insurance, both of which would improve farmworkers’ lives. Maria Alicia Rojo Rocha, a farmworker in Idaho told us, “If I was able to receive overtime pay, I would use that money to go to the doctor to get a checkup. As farmworkers, we have to prioritize paying our necessities, and we put off seeking medical care because we cannot afford to go to the doctor. I want to ensure that I can continue being healthy so I can contribute to my family.”

Finally, granting farmworkers overtime pay would help improve farmworker health, which is one of the primary purposes of the FLSA. Farmworkers face numerous hazards in their work and should be compensated with overtime pay for their overtime hours. Long working hours have been connected with increased injuries in the workplace. As one of our California members, Gonzalo P. Lopez, shared during the successful campaign to bring overtime protections to farmworkers in his state, “I have worked in the fields for many years, and this work is very hard because I have worked for decades in high heat, during the rain, and during very cold winters. For these reasons, I support the legislation that would give us overtime pay to all the workers in the field.”

Now is the time to right wrongs that can no longer be justified or tolerated in a society where equal rights and equal justice are supposed to be more than academic theories or political rhetoric. In a world that is ever more conscious of the structural racism underpinning our society, we must end the racist exclusion of farmworkers from the FLSA’s overtime protection.

Teresa Romero is president of United Farm Workers.

Read essays from workers and advocates whose direct experience with the FLSA’s shortcomings offers a starting point for discussion and action to change it:

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