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Committee Holds Hearing on Governor’s Farmworker Minimum Wage Legislation

Andy O’Brien
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On Tuesday, the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee held a public hearing on Governor Janet Mills’ bill, LD 2273, “An Act to Establish a State Minimum Hourly Wage for Agricultural Workers,” which would finally make farmworkers eligible for the state minimum wage that applies to most other workers. If passed, the law would make farmworkers eligible for the current $14.15 per hour state minimum wage and index it to inflation. It would also require employers to issue paystubs to effectively track their hours and pay.

“Farmworkers perform some of the most valuable, physically demanding and low-paying work in our society,” said Maine AFL-CIO President Cynthia Phinney. “These workers deserve the same dignity and respect as all other workers, but for nearly 90 years they have been excluded from many basic labor rights granted under state and federal law. This bill is a positive step, and it must be improved. It is long past time for Maine to update our labor laws to reflect the hard work farmworkers do.”

The Maine AFL-CIO recommended three improvements to strengthen the bill and ensure we are not once again reproducing second class status under the law for farmworkers — a problem that has plagued us for nearly 90 years. The improvements are:

1) Farmworkers should have a right of private action to defend their wage and hour rights in court, as other Maine workers do if they are not paid the minimum wage. Under this bill, farmworkers would rely exclusively on the Maine Department of Labor as the only means to enforce their right to the minimum wage and MDOL is deeply understaffed with one wage and hour inspector for every 82,000 workers in the state.

2) Requiring that farmworkers be offered at least an unpaid rest break after six hours of work.

3) Providing protections from excessive forced overtime hours. Most Maine workers cannot be forced to work more than 160 hours in a two-week period. Unlike other workers, a farmworker can be disciplined or fired for refusing to work more than 160 hours in a two-week period. That’s the equivalent of working nearly 11.5-hour days for 14 days straight.

The Governor developed the bill based on a stakeholder process that involved the Maine AFL-CIO, farmers, state agencies, legislators, legal aid attorneys and others. The Governor established the stakeholder group after vetoing a compromise bill that would have extended minimum wage protections to farmworkers; require a limit of 80 hours of forced overtime in a two-week period; and give them the right to a 30-minute unpaid rest break after six hours.

On Thursday afternoon the Labor committee voted along party lines to move the bill forward. The amended version of the bill included applying the state minimum wage to farmworkers and granting them the right to take an action in court if their wages are stolen.