Advocates for farm workers have for years lobbied for stricter wage enforcement, and said they are finally starting to see action by the Department of Labor. In its first three years, the Obama administration conducted almost 10 percent more agriculture investigations than occurred in the prior three years under President George W. Bush, according to an analysis by Farmworker Justice , a Washington-based advocacy group.
Now local farmers are simply paying the overtime rates that they should have been paying all along, according to Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice.
“The rules have been clear for decades,” Goldstein said. Employers may be complaining that it’s unfair for the Labor Department to start taking action against violations of the law that it had ignored in the past, he said. “If that’s their line, which I suspect it is, it’s not a good excuse.”
Agriculture has been exempt from overtime pay requirements, Bonanno said, because the work is seasonal. The logic: Workers put in long weeks for a few months of the year, but then they work less in the off-season so everything balances out.
Cronin noted that some nonseasonal businesses, such as auto dealerships and movie theaters, also have exemptions from overtime pay requirements for certain jobs. He declined to comment on why some industries are exempt and others aren’t.
Farms in northeastern Massachusetts face particularly stiff challenges in terms of compliance, Bonanno said. Because these farms tend to focus on produce, rather than livestock or dairy, they’re labor-intensive and must navigate a maze of labor rules. They also rely largely on nonfamily sources of labor, including the foreign guest worker H-2A program, which comes with its own complex set of rules.
As local farmers brace for increased scrutiny, they’re continuing to make adjustments. Bonanno said he’s careful about who handles any crops that arrive from another farm for his CSA program. Often he’ll handle those boxes himself, or assign a part-time worker to the task.
At Mann Orchards in Methuen, Fitzgerald said unclear regulations are making it harder for him and his sons, Matthew and Joshua, to maintain the family business. But they’re not giving up. Their solution will be to find efficiencies, he said, and constantly improve.
“If I want to think about it negatively, it’s another nail in the coffin, but I don’t want to think about it negatively,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s another challenge: We’re forced to become better at what we do.”
G. Jeffrey MacDonald can be reached at email@example.com.