Federal and state laws provide protections for workers in many types of US industries, but agricultural workers sometimes are exempt from these laws or subject to more specific laws. For example, the National Labor Relations Act is a long-standing federal law that provides workers with the right to choose whether to participate in a union. The NLRA does not cover agricultural workers, and no federal law serves a similar purpose for them. Some state laws may provide parallel protections, though.
Meanwhile, the Fair Labor Standards Act provides federal requirements in areas such as minimum wage and overtime. It excluded agricultural workers when it was written, but it was modified in the 1960s to provide some coverage for them. Some agricultural employers still may be entitled to exemptions under the FLSA that depend on the employment right affected. For example, agricultural employers that did not use more than 500 man-days of agricultural labor during any calendar quarter of the preceding calendar year are not subject to FLSA rules for minimum wage and overtime. (A man-day is a day in which an employee works for at least one hour in agricultural labor.) The legal minimum age for an employee is lower in agriculture than in most industries. In most cases, children who are 14 or older may be hired to work in agriculture outside school hours. Children who are 12 or 13 may be hired with parental permission.
Check State and Local Laws
While federal laws provide limited protections to agricultural workers, state and local laws may provide broader protections that are more similar to rules governing workers in other industries.
The Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act
Enacted in the 1980s, the MSPA serves as the core federal law governing agricultural labor. It covers people who hold seasonal or temporary agricultural employment, providing them with rights regarding their wages, working hours, and work conditions. Employees are entitled to receive information about these matters, as well as housing and workers’ compensation benefits, from the employer or the farm labor contractor that recruited them at the time that they are recruited. Both the employer and the contractor must keep payroll records, and employees must receive written earnings statements.
Employers covered by the MSPA must get appropriate licenses through the US Department of Labor, while farm labor contractors must register with the Department of Labor. If an employer provides housing to agricultural workers, this must meet the requirements of federal housing laws. While the Department of Labor oversees and enforces the MSPA, an agricultural worker has a private right of action to sue in federal court for violations. They do not need to exhaust their administrative remedies before bringing a claim. Moreover, an employer may be responsible for an MSPA violation even if a farm labor contractor hired the employee. This requires a finding of joint employment, which usually means that the agricultural worker is financially dependent on the employer.
Safety Protections for Agricultural Workers
Many employers in agriculture must provide safe and healthy working conditions under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. For example, agricultural laborers are generally entitled to work in a place that does not contain hazards that pose a risk of death or serious injury. An exclusion from OSHA protections applies to immediate family members of an agricultural employer. Another exclusion applies to operations with 10 or fewer employees within the last 12 months who are not family members of the employer, unless the employer operated a temporary labor camp during that time. Congress does not allow the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to allocate funds to enforcing regulations that apply to these operations, and it excludes these operations from Department of Labor appropriations bills.
More specifically, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act requires registration and labeling of pesticides, which are managed by the Environmental Protection Agency. A Worker Protection Standard and a Certification of Pesticide Applicators Standard issued by the EPA reduce the risks associated with pesticide use. Under the WPS, an employer must limit the exposure of their workers to pesticides. Among other measures, they must use pesticides in ways provided by their labeling, exclude workers from treated areas, and provide instructions to workers and their supervisors. Under the CAS, a worker who applies restricted-use pesticides (as defined by the EPA) or supervises their application must receive a certification. State agencies operate certification programs, subject to EPA oversight.
H-2A Visas for Agricultural Workers
Agricultural employers can bring foreign national workers into the US through the H-2A visa program if there are not enough US workers who are qualified for the job. Foreign national agricultural workers can stay in the US only for temporary, seasonal agricultural work.