Workers harvest a blueberry crop in Washington County. Ellsworth American file photo

Legislation that aims to improve the wages and working conditions of farmworkers in Maine now awaits action by Gov. Janet Mills.

Approved by the House and Senate last week, L.D. 398 would legally define farmworkers as “employees,” making them eligible for the state minimum wage of $13.80 per hour. The bill also would protect them from having to work more than 80 hours of mandatory overtime in any consecutive two-week period.

Under current Maine labor laws, farmworkers aren’t considered employees, so they don’t benefit from minimum wage and overtime protections afforded to most workers, House Speaker Talbot Ross, D-Portland, said when she presented the bill in April.

With few exceptions, she said, farmworkers in Maine are only legally entitled to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, which hasn’t changed since 2009.

“While farmworkers in Maine generally make more than that amount, they are not legally protected by Maine’s minimum wage provisions,” Talbot Ross said. “Are Maine’s farmworkers worthy of similar legal protections? In my mind, the answer is clearly yes.”

The governor’s staff said Tuesday that Mills has received the bill and is reviewing it. She has until the end of July 19 to sign or veto the bill, or it automatically becomes law.


Several workers and human rights groups are calling on Mills to sign the legislation, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

“We urge Gov. Mills to sign L.D. 398 into law to reduce racial inequities in Maine and improve our state’s economy,” said ACLU spokesman Samuel Crankshaw.

“Farmworkers are disproportionately workers of color,” he said. “(Their exclusion) from fair labor laws is a deliberate wrong that is rooted in the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. They deserve the same workplace standards and protections as all other workers.”

Beth Schiller, owner of Dandelion Spring Farm in Bowdoinham, harvests squash blossoms at the farm on June 30.  Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, said he’s confident the bill will become law.

“Farmworkers are an essential backbone of our economy, keeping food on all of our tables,” Schlobohm said. “They deserve the same rights and protections under the law that other workers enjoy. This compromise bill takes an important step in that direction.”



In June, the Joint Standing Committee on Labor and Housing voted 7-3 to recommend passage of the bill. The Legislature passed a significantly amended version that would take effect Jan. 1.

It removed the requirement for operators to pay time-and-a-half to farm laborers who work over 40 hours per week.

The committee heard opposition from nearly 40 potato growers and producers across Maine who testified against eliminating the overtime pay exemption for farmworkers, which would cost the industry about $3.6 million annually, according to the Maine Potato Board.

“The long-standing exemption for overtime for agricultural workers was put in place recognizing the unique nature of agriculture production,” the potato producers said in written testimony. “We have a very limited time in which to raise and harvest crops. Agriculture is also faced with factors we have no control over, such as the weather.”

Rather than pay higher wages, some potato farmers might “invest in equipment that will allow them to hire fewer employees,” the producers said.

Simeon Allen of W.R. Allen Inc. testified that paying higher wages for overtime hours would hurt the company’s 500-acre blueberry-growing operation on the Blue Hill peninsula. The company hires 30 farmworkers to harvest more than 1 million pounds of fruit sold annually across the United States.


“We would have no choice but to limit working hours to 40 hours per week due to the large increase in pay,” Allen said. “Our farmworkers depend on working 60-70 hours per week to make as much money as they can in the short blueberry season.”

Penny Jordan, co-owner of Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth, testified neither for nor against the bill in April because she thought it was a simplistic attempt to solve a complex problem and warrants more study by stakeholders.

While she strives to pay her workers well and provides other benefits, she still worries that defining farmworkers as employees will unleash a host of unintended challenges for Maine agriculture businesses.

Penny Jordan, shown in 2021, surveys the fields at Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth, accompanied by her dog Ruthie. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Requiring operators to pay the state minimum wage or allow half-hour breaks for every six hours in the field may be doable for many farms, Jordan said.

“But other benefits may be more difficult to implement, such as paid family leave and other paid time off,” she said. “I think we have a lot more work to do.”

Under the pending legislation, farmworkers could no longer be required to work more than 80 hours of overtime in any consecutive two-week period. The bill sets no limit on voluntary overtime.


The bill also doesn’t apply to “seasonal employers” as defined under Maine law, which are industries that operate in a regularly recurring period or periods of less than 26 weeks in a calendar year.

Most farms in Maine operate more than 26 weeks per year and therefore are not considered seasonal employers, said Schlobohm of the AFL-CIO.

The bill also doesn’t allow farmworkers to unionize, but does allow them to discuss and seek professional advice about their rights without fear of retribution from employers.

Talbot Ross also proposed L.D. 525, which would allow farmworkers to unionize and safely address employment concerns. That bill was carried over to the next legislative session.

Maine is home to 7,600 farms, according to recent federal data. They employ more than 13,000 hired employees; that number does not include contracted workers.

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