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
|Workers with less than HS||$16.52|
|Workers with HS diploma only||$21.94|
Notes: All values are for 2022 and in 2022 dollars. HS = high school. Nonsupervisory nonfarm workers’ wage represents the average hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees, total for the private sector, not seasonally adjusted. Nonsupervisory farmworkers’ wage is the gross average hourly wage of field and livestock workers. Data for all workers, and for workers with a high school diploma and less than high school, can be found at the Economic Policy Institute State of Working America Data Library.
In 2022, the average earnings of all nonsupervisory farmworkers (i.e., combined field and livestock workers) was $16.62 per hour. This is just half (52%) of the average hourly wage for all workers in the United States in 2022, which stands at $32.00 per hour (see EPI’s Data Library).
The average hourly wage for production and nonsupervisory nonfarm workers—the most appropriate cohort of nonagricultural workers to compare with farmworkers—was $27.56, according to the Current Employment Statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In other words, farmworkers earned just under 60% of what production and nonsupervisory workers outside of agriculture earned. USDA has referred to this wage gap between farmworker and nonfarm worker wages as “slowly shrinking, but still substantial.” In 2022, the farmworker wage gap remained substantial and virtually unchanged from the previous two years.
Farmworkers have very low levels of educational attainment. According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, 26% completed the 10th, 11th, or 12th grade, and 14% completed some education beyond high school. Farmworkers earn the same or less than the two groups of nonfarm workers with the lowest levels of education in the United States: Nonsupervisory farmworkers earned 10 cents an hour more than the average wage earned by workers without a high school diploma ($16.52), but earned $5.32 less per hour than the average wage earned by workers with only a high school diploma ($21.94).
In sum, farmworkers in the United States continue to earn relatively low wages, and have for many decades, which belies the suggestions from agribusiness that farmworkers are overpaid and that their wages are rising uncontrollably. In the next blog post, I’ll address wages and wage growth in the H-2A visa program, a topic which has been hotly contested and debated by agribusiness, farmworker advocates, and policymakers over the past few years.
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