Farmworkers, mostly from Mexico and El Salvador, cut broccoli stalks at Smith’s Farm in 2006 near Fort Fairfield in Aroostook County. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

A proposal to raise the minimum wage for farmworkers in Maine drew mixed reaction from labor advocates and farmers during a public hearing Tuesday at the State House, and both groups called for changes to the bill.

Some want the measure to include more worker protections, while others support a separate minimum wage for younger farmworkers.

The bill would raise the minimum wage for farmworkers to $14.15 per hour – the current state minimum wage for other workers in Maine.

Farmworkers are now exempt from the state’s minimum wage law, and most fall under the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Besides raising the minimum for farmworkers, the bill would provide them the same cost-of-living increases that apply to other workers in Maine.

Members of the Labor and Housing Committee heard conflicting testimony Tuesday and will discuss whether to amend the bill in a workshop session in the coming weeks before making a recommendation to the full Legislature.

Even those in favor of the bill said it should be amended to prevent abuse. They argued it should give workers the right to individually sue their employers if they fail to pay the minimum wage. All other Maine workers have that right, but under the bill proposed by Gov. Janet Mills, farmworkers would not.


Mary Anne Turowski, legislative coordinator for the Mills administration, said the governor requested that farmworkers not be allowed to individually sue over wage violations to “minimize ongoing litigation” if the bill becomes law. The proposal would give the Maine Department of Labor sole authority to enforce minimum wage violations for farmworkers.

Turowski said the bill is an attempt to improve working conditions for farmworkers while also “balancing the very real challenges faced by Maine’s farms.”

But House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, the bill’s sponsor, said she disagreed, and “believes the legislation should allow individual workers to have the right to sue.”

Mills vetoed a similar bill in 2023 over concerns that technical language would cause unintended consequences in the agricultural industry. But Mills said she favors establishing the same minimum wage for farmworkers as other employees, and in 2023 created a minimum wage committee to come up with a bill.

Talbot Ross and others said the provision to remove the right to sue was never discussed by the committee.

“Every other working person in Maine has the statutory right to bring an action on their own for injuries caused by nonpayment of the minimum wage,” said Thom Harnett, a former Democratic lawmaker. “Failure to provide that right to farmworkers would create yet another example of giving farmworkers a lesser bundle of rights under law.”


Andy Schmidt, a Portland attorney who represents farmworkers, said that “by denying farmworkers access to the courthouse, we would effectively endorse a system of second-class rights for some of our most vulnerable workers.”

The right to sue also acts as a deterrent for employers who otherwise might exploit workers, Schmidt said. He added that the Maine Department of Labor does not have the resources to investigate individual claims of an employer failing to pay minimum wage.

The AFL-CIO also recommended the bill be amended to mandate that workers be entitled to an unpaid 30-minute break every six hours, and that no employer could force a farmworker to work more than 160 hours over a two-week period, protections that already exist in Maine law for other workers.

Maine has about 7,600 farms, according to federal data, employing more than 13,000 employees, not including contracted workers.

State Sen. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, co-owner of Ricker Hill Orchards, said lawmakers should consider establishing a separate, lower minimum wage for farmworkers age 17 and younger.

He said it’s a longstanding tradition to hire many young workers, who for a variety of reasons may not be able to keep up the same pace as adult workers. Timberlake didn’t specify what the lower minimum wage for young farmworkers should be. Opponents have argued that paying the minimum wage would make it harder for farms to provide work opportunities for young people.

“My concern with this bill is we are really stifling the youth. We don’t have a way to give the youth a way to grow,” Timberlake said. “You’re going to force us to … not allow (the youth) to work anymore.”

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