The farmworker wage gap: Farmworkers earned 40% less than comparable nonagricultural workers in 2022

This is the second blog post in a series on farmworker employment and wages.

The public discourse around farmworkers’ wages has recently reached a fever pitch, with farm employers and industry associations arguing that wages have risen too quickly and are out of control. As a response, farm employers and industry associations have lobbied Congress to reduce the required wage rates for migrant farmworkers in the H-2A visa program—known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR)—and even sued the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to invalidate a new methodology for setting AEWRs.

But even a cursory review of the basic wage data on farmworkers and the H-2A program reveals that claims about farmworkers being overpaid are not based on any observable evidence, and in fact farmworkers are paid much less than similarly situated workers outside of agriculture. That is not to say that farmworkers’ wages have not increased over the past decade—they have risen in real terms—but farmworker wage growth must be viewed in the context of wage growth for other workers and employer claims of a labor shortage in agriculture.

In light of these claims and recent lobbying efforts, this next blog post in this series will examine the available evidence on farmworkers’ wages and wage growth compared with workers outside of agriculture. In subsequent posts, I’ll review changes in the AEWR over the past 10 years, and analyze the wages of directly hired farmworkers versus those who are employed by farm labor contractors.

The Farm Labor Survey is an important source for data on wages in agriculture

The most reliable data on farmworkers’ wages come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service, which surveys farm employers about their directly hired workers and reports the results in USDA’s Farm Labor Survey (FLS) twice a year (with data reported in those reports for reference weeks in January, April, July, and October). 

USDA’s FLS obtains wage data by asking farmers to report the total wages paid and hours worked by type of worker, such as crop, livestock, or agricultural equipment operator. The resulting average hourly earnings or wages reflect the results of many wage systems, hourly wages, piece rates, and wages plus overtime and bonuses, for farmworkers who are hired directly by individual farm employers. (The wages of farmworkers who are not employed directly, which the FLS does not collect, will be discussed in another blog post in this series.)

One thing to note about the FLS is that the accuracy of the results relies on the truthfulness of farm employers. USDA does not review the payroll records of farms or pay stubs from farmworkers to verify the claims of farm employers.

Farmworkers earn very low wages

Despite some documented real increases in wages the past few years, the latest FLS data show the hourly earnings of farmworkers are much lower than the earnings of similarly situated nonfarm workers, as well as compared with the average for all workers in the United States (see Figure A).

The farmworker wage gap in 2022: Farmworkers earn very low wages compared with other workers: Average hourly wage rate for nonsupervisory farmworkers nationwide compared with average hourly wages of other workers, 2022

Type Amount
Nonsupervisory farmworkers $16.62
Workers with less than HS $16.52
Workers with HS diploma only $21.94
Nonsupervisory nonfarm $27.56
All workers $32.00
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The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.