According to data analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, between 2000 and 2019, the federal Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) conducted more than 31,000 investigations of farm employers, and 70 percent of them detected violations. That led to employers paying $76 million in back wages to 154,000 farmworkers, and $63 million in civil penalties for violations related to inadequate housing, transportation, and record-keeping.
Overall, agriculture accounted for a disproportionate share of investigations and violations compared to the rest of American industry. The true number of farm workers is unknown, but the average number reported to state agencies is around 1.3 million people, or about 1 percent of total U.S. employment in 2019. But over the past 15 years, the sector accounted for 3 percent of the 10 million violations—triple the share of employment.
Third-party staffing firms most problematic
According to the report, it was farm labor contractors (FLCs), third-party staffing firms that find and supply field hands for farmers, growers, and producers, that were most problematic. Even though they represent only 14 percent of sector-wide employment, FLCs accounted for nearly a quarter of overall federal wage and hour violations in agriculture.
Every year, these staffing firms bring around 181,000 subcontracted workers to farms, as part of a growing, decades-long trend in outsourcing farm labor, and cutting back on direct hires, says Phillip Martin, one of the study’s co-authors. He compares workers employed in “crop support,” as the sector is officially called, to temps.
Farm workers employed by FLCs, who represent around two-thirds of crop workers in California, tend to earn less than direct hires. Direct hires, who performed the same job, earned at least $15 an hour. Last year, those tensions boiled over into a strike.