Wage and Hour Down on the Farm

barn, silo and other farm buildings

As in many parts of the country, here in our home state of North Carolina agriculture is big business. And while farmers usually spend most of their time thinking about things like the weather and crops, they might be well-served to set aside at least a few minutes to think about the law. Every year I see stories of farm operators paying penalties and fines for employment law violations that could have been easily avoided.

Turns out, there are several provisions of federal law that apply to wages and working conditions for the folks who work on farms. As we’re heading in to the spring growing season, it might be a good time to review just a few of these rules.

Seasonal Workers

Many farmers rely on migrant workers. These traveling workers move from farm to farm across the country planting, tending and harvesting as the growing season progresses. I don’t think it would surprise anyone to learn there are rules governing how these workers should be compensated.

Workers may be hired directly by the farmer or by an agricultural association comprised of several farms. Typically in that case, the hiring farm or association will provide housing for the workers. Workers may also work for a “Farm Labor Contractor.” A Farm Labor Contractor is sort of like a temp agency for migrant workers. The Farm Labor Contractor will typically contract with farms to provide their field workers, recruit and hire the workers, transport them to the farm and supply their housing.

The Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA) requires Farm Labor Contractors to register with the U.S. Department of Labor. The Act requires farmers, agricultural associations and Farm Labor Contractors to tell prospective employees what sort of work may be required, what wages they will be paid, how long the job will last and whether unemployment and workers’ compensation insurance will be included.

The Act also requires anyone hiring migrant workers to provide them with housing that complies with all federal and state safety and health standards.

Overtime and Minimum Wage

Generally speaking, employees performing agricultural work are considered exempt from overtime requirements. This means they don’t have to be paid time-and-a-half if they work more than 40 hours in a week. However, in most cases they are still covered by minimum wage rules, so they would need to be paid at least the federal minimum wage (as of this writing, $7.25 per hour) unless the state mandates a higher minimum. This means you should record work hours for all your farm workers, so you can make sure you’re paying them at least minimum wage. Acroprint offers easy-to-use, durable battery powered heavy duty punch clocks that can even be transported to the fields to track worker time.

There are some exceptions to the minimum wage rules. If the agricultural employer didn’t use at least 500 “man days” of labor in any calendar quarter of the preceeding year, they are exempt from both the minimum wage and overtime provisions of federal law in the current calendar year. (A “man day” is any day in which an employee performs agricultural work for one hour or more.)

Also, keep in mind “agricultural work” does not include work performed on a farm that isn’t related to the farming operations. So, for instance, a nanny, house painter or computer repair technician would probably not be considered agricultural workers, even if they did work on a farm. It also doesn’t include work performed processing agricultural products off the farm, if the person doing the processing is employed by someone other than the farmer who grew the stuff in the first place. People who are not agricultural workers are subject to all the &lduqo;normal” wage and hour laws without any agricultural exemptions.

In A Nutshell

There are many other laws that apply to farms and agricultural workers. For instance, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has rules requiring farms to provide water and proper sanitation facilities to field workers. There are many Department of Labor rules related to allowable work for children under the age of 16, as well as various record-keeping regulations.

Keep in mind: the rules we covered above are federal laws. There are various exceptions and exemptions to these rules, so you should check with your employment law advisor to see specifically which laws and regulations apply in your situation.

And even if you comply with the federal rules, you may not be in the clear if your state has more restrictive laws on the books. If you run a farm with any employees (full-time, part-time or seasonal/migrant) you would do well to consult with an employment law attorney who’s familiar with the rules for agricultural employees in your area, just to make sure you’re complying with all the rules that apply to you.

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