Workers pick strawberries at Maxwell’s Farm on Bowery Beach Road in Cape Elizabeth. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The Maine Legislature has fallen short of overriding a bill Gov. Janet Mills vetoed last week that would have improved wages and working conditions for agricultural workers in Maine.

House members voted 61-61 on a motion to override Tuesday, effectively upholding the veto, killing the bill and further disappointing its supporters. They needed a two-thirds majority of members present to save the bill.

With her veto sustained, Mills signed an executive order Tuesday afternoon establishing a formal stakeholder group to pursue a state minimum wage for farmworkers – an action she promised when she rejected the bill.

The executive order doesn’t say whether a state minimum wage for farmworkers would equal the state minimum wage for other workers, which is $13.80 per hour. With few exceptions, farmworkers in Maine are only legally entitled to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, though most generally make more than that amount, bill supporters said.

Mills said last week that she “reluctantly” vetoed L.D. 398 because she and some members of the agricultural community had concerns about unintended consequences and unforeseen costs of the heavily amended bill.

Mills and some farm owners worried that the bill’s language granting the state minimum wage to farmworkers might trigger other legal requirements and benefits provided to employees under state and federal labor laws, such as paid time off, unemployment benefits and piecework compensation.


However, the bill’s supporters were surprised when Mills, a Democrat, vetoed the bill because they had amended the legislation following negotiations with the governor and members of her administration and had agreed to a variety of concessions intended to win her support.

Rep. Amy Roeder, D-Bangor, House chair of the Labor and Housing Committee, delivered a passionate override plea to her colleagues, disputing that the bill was complicated, confusing or poorly crafted.

“It simply is not accurate to claim that this process was flawed, rushed or did not consider the concerns of the agricultural industry,” Roeder said. “The proof is in the stripped-down version of the bill itself.”

Roeder said the final bill resulted from multiple meetings that included the governor’s staff, state labor and agriculture officials and representatives of the farming, potato, blueberry and dairy industries. It no longer included a requirement to pay time-and-a-half for more than 40 hours worked in a week, or language protecting concerted activity, such as employees discussing working conditions and bringing concerns to their employers.

“I left these meetings under the assumption we had a deal – a compromise that would become law,” Roeder said. The bill finally would have made certain “that every farm worker who puts food on our tables is entitled to the state minimum wage,” she said.

Rep. Gary Drinkwater, R-Milford, spoke against the override effort, saying that the bill didn’t account for migrant workers, who he said are well paid and provided housing under federal law, and other farmworkers who already earn the state minimum wage.


“I think we have a fundamental misunderstanding of what a farmworker is,” Drinkwater said.

A successful override in Tuesday’s special session required the support of two-thirds of members present in the House and the Senate. The bill passed July 6 with votes of 73-56 in the House and 21-10 in the Senate. However, an earlier version presented in June squeaked through the House, 73-71.

Sponsored by House Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, L.D. 398 in its final form would have legally defined farmworkers as “employees,” making them eligible for the state minimum wage of $13.80 per hour.

The bill also would have protected them from having to work more than 80 hours of mandatory overtime in any consecutive two-week period, and given them the right to a 30-minute unpaid rest break after six hours.

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, bill supporters said.

In rejecting the bill, Mills pledged to issue an executive order to formally establish a stakeholder group “to allow for a longer and more in-depth analysis” of the legislation, with the goal of arriving at “a shared understanding of how to implement a minimum wage bill for farmworkers.”


Tuesday’s order establishes the Committee to Develop and Implement a Minimum Wage Bill for Agricultural Workers.

The committee is charged with developing “legislation that will implement a minimum wage for agricultural workers, (and) identify the impacts the bill will have (related to) federal and state wage and hour laws.”

It also will “ensure the full range of impacts are thoroughly understood by both agricultural employers and their workers.”

“I strongly support a state minimum wage for farm workers and am committed to signing one into law,” Mills said in a statement Tuesday. “This stakeholder group will allow for a longer and more in-depth analysis of the language of L.D. 398.”

The committee also will resolve questions within the agricultural community about what the bill would and would not do, and what aspects of farm employment it may change, Mills said.

“It will help all parties arrive at a shared understanding so that we can move forward with and implement a farm worker minimum wage next year,” she said.


The committee’s co-chairs will be the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and the commissioner of the Department of Labor, or their designees.  The state attorney general is expected to provide legal assistance, within available resources.

Mills invited the House speaker, Senate president and a variety of agricultural, worker and civil rights representatives to sit on the committee.

The committee shall submit a summary of its assessment process, findings and any corresponding recommendations to the governor by Dec. 1 so she may prepare legislation to introduce in the second session of the 131st Legislature.

Talbot Ross didn’t respond to a request for comment following Tuesday’s override vote.

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

Juana Rodriguez-Vazquez expressed her disappointment Tuesday as a member of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Tribal Populations. The daughter of migrant farmworkers, she’s also executive director of Mano en Mano, an organization that works to empower farmworkers and immigrants in Maine.


“We grant minimum wage protections to workers throughout our country, yet deny these protections to farmworkers due to systemic racism and historic marginalization,” she said. “Farmworkers are the backbone of the potato, blueberry and seafood harvests – the iconic products of Maine – yet they are not afforded basic rights.”

The Maine Potato Board praised the sustained veto, saying the bill likely began as well-intended, but amendments created many unanswered questions and potential unintended consequences. Nearly 40 potato growers and producers across Maine signed onto testimony against paying overtime to farmworkers, which would cost the industry about $3.6 million annually, the board said.

“L.D. 398 began as a proposal primarily requiring overtime pay for individuals employed in various aspects of the agriculture industry, including those canning, processing, freezing, and drying foods,” the board’s statement said.

In the end, the board had many questions about the bill’s broader impact on an $11.7 billion industry, particularly related to the use of the terms “agricultural workers” and “agricultural labor,” which appear elsewhere in Maine law for other purposes.

Several of the bill’s supporters, including the Maine Center for Economic Policy and the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, highlighted that this was Mills’ second veto of legislation that would benefit farmworkers. Last year, she vetoed a bill that would have extended collective bargaining rights to agricultural workers.

“Gov. Mills abdicated the responsibility to right a historic wrong in state and federal agricultural labor laws,” said Heather Spalding, deputy director, Maine Organic Farms and Growers Association. “It is disingenuous for her to say that she supports a minimum wage for farmworkers when she won’t even allow a stripped-down bill with many exemptions for agricultural employers to pass into law.”

Talbot Ross also has 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.

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