Dispelling Common Misconceptions about Farmworkers

Our agricultural system has always relied on the labor of displaced people that do not have the benefit of full citizenship in this country — whether indentured servants, slaves, sharecroppers, or undocumented immigrants. The same laws that currently negatively impact immigrant farmworkers were largely written to disenfranchise Black farmers. Let’s dispel five common myths about farmworkers. 


Myth: Farmworkers are paid an hourly wage. 

Fact: Farm work is one of the lowest paid jobs in the nation. The average wage for a farmworker is between $20,000 – $24,999 per year.[1] While some states do have minimum wage requirements for farmworkers, they are not guaranteed a federal minimum wage because they are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and are often paid a piece rate for their work.[2] This is a fixed rate of compensation based on a worker’s output such as an amount of compensation per box, bin, barn, bucket, truckload, field, or bucket of product cut, harvested, packed or prepared for sale. In some states, workers earn just 45 cents per 35 lb. bucket of harvested sweet potatoes.[3] 


Myth: Agriculture is not a dangerous occupation. 

Fact: Farm work is considered one of the most dangerous occupations in the country, often ranking in the top 10 in various studies. Health risks include heat illness, musculoskeletal pain, chronic disease, pesticide exposure, toxic chemical injuries, crowded and substandard housing, and barriers to health care — for example, only about 47% of farmworkers have health insurance.[4] [5] Additionally, most federal workplace safety regulations do not cover farmworkers. 


Myth: All farmworkers are undocumented. 

Fact: There are an estimated 2.4 million farmworkers in the United States, the majority of which have documents to work in the country. Specifically, about 56% of farmworkers have work authorization such as U.S. citizenship, legal permanent residency, or a visa.[6]   


Myth: Immigrant farmworkers receive the same benefits as other employees in the United States. 

Fact: Despite farmworkers paying taxes in the United States— even undocumented immigrants pay state and local taxes — most are not eligible for federal or state employment benefits due to the limitations of the FLSA.[7] [8] Undocumented immigrant farmworkers are not eligible for welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, and most other public benefits. Documented farmworkers are still largely excluded from employment-related protections at the state level including state minimum wage laws, unemployment benefits, and workers’ compensation.[9] Only 13% use food stamps and 39% received health insurance through a program like Medicaid, despite how few have insurance.[10] 


Myth: Farmworkers have a path to citizenship based on their regular employment. 

Fact: Although a portion of farmworkers have pathways to citizenship, it is largely through the same means any other worker would attain citizenship in the country, which is lengthy and costly. There is a specific visa program for farmworkers called H-2A that only grants temporary work. Though legislation was recently proposed to change this, there is currently no path to citizenship for farmworkers in this program, despite paying taxes on their labor.[11] [12] 


Learn more about the conditions of farmworkers in The Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States written by Bon Appétit and United Farm Workers of America with support from Oxfam America.  


[1] https://wdr.doleta.gov/research/details.cfm?q=National%20Agricultural%20Workers%20Survey&id=2707  

[2] The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 originally excluded all farmworkers and was amended in 1978 to mandate minimum wage for workers on large farms only. Read more: https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/WHD/legacy/files/FairLaborStandAct.pdf  

[3] https://nfwm.org/farm-workers/farm-worker-issues/low-wages/#piece  

[4] https://www.doleta.gov/naws/research/docs/NAWS_Research_Report_13.pdf  

[5] https://www.osha.gov/agricultural-operations/hazards  

[6] This statistic is derived from a study by the United States Department of Labor: https://wdr.doleta.gov/research/details.cfm?q=National%20Agricultural%20Workers%20Survey&id=2707  

[7] https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/41928/19066_ah719k_1_.pdf?v=0  

[8] https://itep.org/undocumented-immigrants-state-local-tax-contributions-2017/  

[9] Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, provisions like overtime pay and minimum wages do not apply to farms that use fewer than 500 “man hours” a year. Read more: https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/WHD/legacy/files/whdfs12.pdf 

[10] https://www.farmworkerjustice.org/about-farmworker-justice/who-we-serve/#:~:text=Despite%20the%20high%20level%20of,a%20government%20program%2C%20like%20Medicaid 

[11] We highlighted the Farm Workforce Modernization Act last year during National Farmworker Awareness Week: https://www.bamco.com/blog/bon-appetit-marks-10th-anniversary-of-inventory-of-farmworker-issues-and-protections/  

[12] The H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program—often called the H-2A visa program—provides a legal means to bring foreign-born workers to the United States to perform seasonal farm labor on a temporary basis, for a period of up to 10 months. Read more: https://www.uscis.gov/working-in-the-united-states/temporary-workers/h-2a-temporary-agricultural-workers