Picking BlueberriesFor many years, farmworkers were entirely excluded from the labor reforms of the 1920’s and 1930’s — child labor prohibitions, workers compensation, minimum wage and overtime pay, social security, unemployment compensation, and collective bargaining rights.

Two of these exclusions remain absolute — overtime pay and collective bargaining rights.  The federal Fair Labor Standards Act still excludes agricultural workers from its overtime pay requirements, so no matter how many hours a farmworker works in a week, he or she is not required to be paid overtime (11).  The National Labor Relations Act, the federal law which sets out a structure and a process for collective bargaining, also still does not cover agricultural workers (12).

Other exclusions have been trimmed over time and those laws now cover at least some agricultural workers.  Still, farmworkers have significantly fewer or weaker protections than other workers:

Minimum Wage

Originally in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act excluded all agricultural workers from its minimum wage protections.  Although farmworkers on larger farms were brought under the Act in 1966, until 1978 they were allowed to be paid a special lower agricultural minimum wage (13).   The law now requires workers on larger farms to be paid the regular federal minimum wage for all hours worked (14).  North Carolina excludes agricultural workers from its overtime law as well (15).

Child Labor

The Fair Labor Standards Act generally does not allow the employment of minors under the age of 16, and those under 18 cannot be employed in any occupation found to be particularly hazardous for minors or detrimental to their health or well-being (16).

In agriculture, however, minors as young as 12 can be employed outside school hours on farms if they have parental written consent or are working with their parents.  Minors between 14 and 16 can work on farms outside of school hours without parental consent.  Minors 16 and over can be employed on a farm during school hours without parental consent and may also be employed in an occupations found to be particularly hazardous for minors (17).

Unemployment Compensation

Until 1978, agricultural workers were not covered by unemployment compensation.  Still many farmworkers lack access to unemployment coverage.  Current law provides that agricultural employers are required to pay unemployment insurance taxes if in the current or the preceding calendar year they either  paid agricultural employees at least $20,000 in wages in any quarter or employed at least 10 workers for at least a portion of a day in each of 20 different weeks (18).  In contrast, employers in other industries must pay unemployment taxes if the in current or preceding calendar year they paid at least $1,500 in wages in any quarter or if they employed at least 1 person for at least a portion of a day in each of 20 different calendar weeks (19).

Workers Compensation
Workers compensation is a system of insurance, mandated by state law, that provides free medical treatment for injuries or illnesses arising in the workplace.  A worker who loses more than a week of work due to the injury can also receive two-thirds of his or her average weekly wage for each week until he or she is cleared by the doctor to return to work.  From its inception In the early 20th century, in North Carolina, almost all farmworkers were not covered by workers compensation.

Most businesses in North Carolina must provide workers compensation if they employ three or more workers whereas agricultural employers must provide workers compensation coverage under North Carolina law only if they employ ten or more year-round workers (20).

Federal law governing the H-2A program requires employers of H-2A workers to provide workers compensation or comparable insurance.  Most North Carolina farms which have workers compensation insurance are those which employ H-2A workers.


(11) 29 U.S.C.§ 213(b)(12)
(12) 29 U.S.C§152(3)
(13) Public Law 93-259 §6(a), 88 Stat. 58, April 8, 1974.
(14) 29 U.S.C. §206(a).
(15) N.C.G.S. §95-25.14(a)(2).
(16) 29 C.F.R. §570.2(a)(ii).
(17) Id.
(18) N.C.G.S. §96-8(5)(n).
(19) N.C.G.S. §96-8(5)(a)
(20) N.C.G.S.§97-2(1).