What is the Farm Labor Survey, and Why is it Important?

Written by:

Elizabeth Melton

5 min read

It should come as no surprise that farm workers were deemed “essential workers” during the pandemic; after all, they are the backbone of our food supply chain. But what is appalling is how little their wages reflected their outsized impact on our country.

In 2020, farm workers earned $14.62 per hour on average, 60% of what comparable workers outside of agriculture made and considerably less than workers with the lowest levels of education. Worse, farm workers with H-2A visas averaged just $13.68 per hour, with pay rates far lower in Florida and Georgia (roughly $11.71 per hour). And those farm workers make up a majority of the farm worker labor force. From 2010 and 2019, farm workers with H-2A visas certified by the U.S. Department of Labor increased more than 220%.

One of the reasons we are aware of this enormous wage gap between farm workers and workers in other fields is due to the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS). In this piece, we’ll delve into what the NAWS is, how it’s used, and the ways in which it has influenced一and continues to influence一the farm worker experience in our country.

What is the Farm Labor Survey?

The National Agricultural Workers Survey, or, colloquially, Farm Labor Survey, is designed to collect US crop workers’ demographic, employment, and health data. NAWS began in 1989 and has surveyed over 71,000 farm workers since. NAWS is jointly conducted by the US Department of Labor and US Department of Agriculture and consists of face-to-face interviews with 1,500 to 3,600 workers each year.

NAWS interviews take place on the farms where farm workers work in 12 different regions across the country. Interviews occur year-round and only consist of currently employed crop workers who are compensated $20 for their participation. The latest compiled results are based on 2017–2018 data. So while the NAWS outcomes are useful, it’s important to remember there is a substantial lag between when interviews are carried out and when the results are available.

What is the survey used for?

The Farm Labor Survey findings indicate:

  • The number of crop workers and their dependents
  • Demographic characteristics of hired crop workers (age, race, ethnicity, gender)
  • Level of education
  • Rate of occupational injury
  • Other farm worker health risks (heat exposure, chemical exposure, etc.)
  • Whether the terms and conditions of agricultural employment have been upheld
  • What the minimum wage should be for temporary, seasonal agricultural workers employed through the H-2A program

As with any survey, the results are only as good as the data you collect. Many farm workers distrust the US government or don’t necessarily understand what the survey is for and therefore aren’t always willing to participate. Others may be pressured by their employer to continue working rather than making time to be interviewed or could be coerced into providing inaccurate information.

Without a truly representative sample, the NAWS results may not completely reflect the farm worker population. But at this point, the NAWS is one of the only farm worker-related surveys that impact farm worker legislation.

How has the farm labor survey influenced farmer labor laws?

Although the sampling may not be 100% accurate, the NAWS results still demonstrate significant pay and other labor inequities in the US farm worker population, prompting changes to farm labor regulation.

Farm worker minimum wage

Trump enacted a farm worker wage freeze during his presidency and kept it enforced even throughout the pandemic. As you can imagine, this decision had a devastating effect on Farm Labor Survey results, and farm worker advocates sued the Department of Agriculture. Farmworker Justice, United Farm Workers union, and the UFW Foundation won an injunction to stop the Trump wage freeze regulation arguing that farm workers already live on low incomes.

One fairly immediate result of that lawsuit was a change to California’s agricultural labor laws. At the start of 2022, California raised farm worker minimum wage to $15 per hour for employers with 26 or more employees. Growers employing 25 or fewer people are obligated to increase their minimum wages to $14 per hour and go up to $15 per hour by 2023.

California also changed its overtime rules. Growers must pay their agricultural employees overtime if they work over eight hours in a workday or over 40 hours in a workweek. They are owed time and a half for work up to 12 hours in a day and double time past 12 hours.

Farm worker data collection

Another demoralizing effect of the pandemic was that the Farm Labor survey was suspended. Because this data establishes farm labor worker wages and eligibility for family assistance programs, The United Farm Workers Union and the UFW Foundation sued the Department of Agriculture. In late 2021, a judge issued a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction prohibiting the USDA from canceling the FLS and the annual Farm Labor Report.

Other farm worker legislation

The Farm Labor Survey has uncovered many other atrocities in farm worker data related to heat exposure and sexual harassment. California has pioneered legislative changes as a result of these findings.

Today, farm worker employers must abide by the Cal/OSHA’s Heat Illness Prevention Standard, designating one or more employees to manage the implementation onsite, supply sufficient fresh water, access to shade, compulsory cool down, and more. Failure to comply with any part of the law leads to a $25,000 fine per citation.

Following the #MeToo movement, the California legislature published a series of bills that enhance safeguards against workplace harassment and protect victims of sexual harassment. Employers are prohibited from incentivizing or punishing employees, are required to send their employees to sexual harassment training, and must keep a record of all sexual harassment complaints for ten years.

Why the Farm Labor Survey matters

The NAWS harvests crucial data for advocates working to improve the wages, labor conditions, and resources available to farm workers. Even with its imperfections, it continues to drive change in the farm worker sphere, putting concrete data behind issues that are already clear to anyone who works within that community. But Farm Labor Survey results only take nonprofits so far.

Nonprofits need digital transformation to track their own data, develop innovative solutions for farm worker relief programs and immigration assistance, and keep working towards farm worker justice. Entidad is a consulting firm geared toward serving the underserved, helping the UFW Foundation and other nonprofits carry out their missions. Check out the Entidad website to learn more about how they help farm worker organizations.

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Julette Martinez

CEO, Farm Worker Organization