Agricultural workers in New York were found by experts to be among the lowest paid workers in the state, leading advocates to push for an increase in their wages.
Cornell University recently published a wage atlas that shows farmworkers make an average of $14.65 an hour in New York state. Currently, minimum wage for farmworkers is $15 an hour in New York City, Long Island and Westchester County and $14.20 per hour for the rest of the state.
Mary Jo Dudley, director of the Cornell Farmworkers Program, said the problems facing wages for farmworkers begin with the food system.
“The actual cost of what it takes to produce food is offset by certain subsidies, and I think the critical issue is our food is sold at prices that are lower than the cost of production,” Dudley said.
She said wages typically eat up 50% of a farm’s expenses, but as fuel and other costs rise, there is only one place for flexibility: adjusting wages.
“I think the reality is that our food production systems in New York state rely heavily on an undocumented workforce and so that is the workforce that doesn’t often advocate for higher wages,” Dudley said.
Russell Weaver, a quantitative geographer and director of research at the Cornell ILR Buffalo Co-Lab, said the data used to compile the wage atlas came from the U.S. Census Bureau's rolling survey, the American Community Survey and information pulled from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator.
Weaver said there are a couple of key things to know about the data.
“Whenever a worker is self-reporting how many hours they work, there’s always a possibility that folks might over report the number of hours they work and they might report a number of hours where they’re not fully compensated,” Weaver said.
The other possibility, Weaver said, is workers are reporting their annual wages so the researchers don’t know exactly how that breaks out per hour if they are earning overtime wages.
“What we build and put into that atlas is a worker’s effective wage based on how many hours they report, and their total income,” Weaver said. “We can calculate effectively, based on these responses, what is the worker earning per hour.”
Weaver said they noticed some of the lowest wages among farmworkers to be in the Southern Tier.
“The discrepancies between the Southern Tier and Central New York weren’t glaring and that’s because wages are low across the board for agricultural workers, but in the Southern Tier we did notice some of the lowest wages for agricultural workers,” Weaver said.
The average per hour pay for farmworkers in the Southern Tier region is $12.71 per hour and in Central New York it is $13.78 per hour.
Dudley said minimum wage for farmworkers is dependent on whether they are a full-time worker or if they are an H-2A visa holder.
“The H-2A workers, these are temporary guest workers, receive a wage that is determined federally so in 2023 for New York state, that hourly wage is $16.95,” Dudley said.
Other factors that are likely to drop what farmworkers make below the state minimum wage include when they’re paid under-the-table or are migrants without permanent legal status. These are issues that Dudley and Maxwell have seen while working with farmworkers.
Weaver said there is no way to know how many of the approximately 10,000 workers who responded to the survey are H-2A workers, so their higher wages could influence the data reflected in the wage atlas.
Jessica Maxwell, executive director of the Workers’ Center of CNY, said while the workers may be hesitant to respond to surveys, she believes the information from the wage atlas is accurate.
“We see situations all the time of workers who aren’t even making minimum wage because their hours aren’t fully accurately reported or they're being paid off the books,” Maxwell said. “I suspect that if anything for some workers hourly rates are even lower [than the study shows] because they are often putting in hours that aren’t getting clocked.”
Maxwell said the center is advocating for the state minimum wage for farmworkers to be raised to $21.25 by 2027.
“The cost of food, rent, utilities and everything else is going up and minimum wage just hasn’t kept pace with that, and we see especially families struggling to be able to meet those costs,” Maxwell said.
Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed indexing minimum wage for all workers in her state budget plan and has seen support from New York State Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon.
But Paul Harvey, director of regulatory affairs for the Northeast Dairy Foods Association, said upstate isn’t ready for another minimum wage increase, and with the lowering of the overtime threshold last year, these changes would negatively impact producers and processors.
“It would drastically increase wages and quadruple the rate at which wages increase over time,” Harvey said. “It would be unsustainable for medium- and small-sized businesses.”
Maxwell, however, said New York’s recent overtime law changes for farmworkers that will gradually take effect over the next decade, is a step in the right direction.
“At least that will give people an additional compensation for the extra hours they’re putting in,” Maxwell said. “We see a lot of permanent farmworkers working 60 hours a week, and that’s really hard.”
Maxwell would like to see minimum wage indexed with the cost of living and inflation.
“We’re constantly in this loop of the wages fall behind, and then we have to find a yearlong campaign in order to get the wages raised,” she said.