Farm workers

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Four Pennsylvania Democrats are planning bills that would give farm workers overtime protections and the right to unionize.

“Pennsylvania has long boasted of the importance of its agricultural industries, yet under our laws tens of thousands of agricultural workers are deprived of the fundamental rights that workers in other economic sectors take for granted,” Reps. Danilo Burgos, Manuel Guzman Jr., Joseph Hohenstein and Dan L. Miller said in a Dec. 29 bill announcement.

The legislation would also protect farm workers from discrimination based on race, age and sex; make them fully eligible for unemployment benefits; and give them the same rights as renters if they live in farm-provided housing.

Such measures would secure key rights that remain uncommon for U.S. ag laborers but are starting to appear in Pennsylvania’s neighboring states.

New York is one of the few states where farm workers are entitled to overtime, and New Jersey and New York are among the 14 states that guarantee collective bargaining rights for ag laborers, according to the National Agricultural Law Center.

In Pennsylvania, mushroom workers have the right to organize, but other farm workers don’t.

Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is the same as the federal rate, so seasonal farm workers in the state must be paid at least $7.25 per hour.

In Maryland, New York and Ohio, farm workers are entitled to the state minimum wage, which is higher than the federal rate. New Jersey has a farm worker minimum wage between the federal and state levels.

Complicating matters, federal law and many states, including Pennsylvania, carve out situations when the minimum wage doesn’t apply to farm workers, according to the National Agricultural Law Center.

The H-2A visa program provides enhanced protections — foreign nationals using the program must be paid at least $16.55 per hour in Pennsylvania — but only some farmers hire workers through this means.

Many exceptions to farm workers’ rights are more than 80 years old, having been codified in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Farmers haven’t necessarily been keen to change the situation, with some citing concerns about the increased cost of overtime, or the well-being of livestock if workers go on strike.

But that position isn’t universal.

Pasa Sustainable Agriculture said fair wages and collective bargaining are important for all agricultural producers, including farm workers.

“While we know there are many farmers who themselves aren't paid a salary or have benefits, we believe food and the environmental services sustainable farms provide should be valued enough in this country that farmers can afford to pay their staff a minimum wage,” the organization said.

The Democratic bill sponsors go even further, arguing agriculture’s lack of worker protections has roots in slavery.

The Pennsylvania bills were introduced last session but died in committee. It’s not clear if they have a better path to becoming law this time: The House is almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, and the GOP controls the Senate.

All four bill sponsors serve urban districts — Burgos and Hohenstein in Philadelphia, Guzman in Reading, and Miller in suburban Pittsburgh.

Burgos has been one of the top Democrats on the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee the past few years. He also sponsored a 2020 bill that would have allowed people without a Social Security number to get a driver’s license, a provision that would have helped foreign farm workers.

Committee assignments for the new legislative session have not yet been posted.