In the waning days of the legislative session, Gov. Mills made a decision that outraged farmworkers, many farmers and those across the state who care about basic human rights – she vetoed a bill that would have finally extended the state minimum wage to cover farmworkers, made them employees under state law and protected them from excessive overtime hours.

Workers harvest strawberries in Cape Elizabeth in 2022. Gov. Mills vetoed a bill that would have legally defined farmworkers as “employees,” making them eligible for the state minimum wage of $13.80 per hour. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Now, the governor has called for a committee to develop and pass a minimum wage for farmworkers. Given her recent actions, we fear the result will be a further watered-down bill that again relegates farmworkers to second-class status.

The vetoed bill had been discussed at length in several hours-long stakeholder meetings convened by the governor’s administration, and advocates had made major concessions to tailor the bill to what we understood the governor would allow to become law. These concessions included maintaining farmworkers’ prohibition from basic labor laws including the right to collective bargaining, overtime pay or even to discuss one’s working conditions without fear of retaliation.

Despite these attempts at compromise and support from many farmers across the state, for the second time in as many years, Gov. Mills vetoed a bill that would have extended a small fraction of the rights farmworkers have been denied for decades.

As elsewhere across our country, Maine’s farms employ a disproportionately large share of Latino, Black and Indigenous workers. Since the New Deal era, when federal legislation enshrining labor rights left out agricultural and domestic workers – at a time when more than half of Black workers were employed in those sectors – farmworkers have toiled without even the most basic protections. To this day, farmworkers can be fired for talking about their working conditions or attempting to organize a union. Decades after it was passed, the Fair Labor Standards Act was amended to cover farmworkers under the federal minimum wage but maintained their exclusion from overtime pay and other basic rights. To this day, with the federal minimum wage unchanged since 2009, farmworkers in Maine can legally be paid as low as $7.25 per hour.

It is therefore no surprise that farmworkers in Maine are much more likely than others to live in poverty – about one-quarter of Maine farmhands live in poverty, a rate more than four times as high as other Maine workers.

In addition to having to pay Maine’s minimum wage, the farm lobby objected to provisions that would allow workers to choose not to work more than 80 hours per week for two weeks straight. We should all agree that workers in Maine, without exception, deserve the freedom to choose whether to stop working after putting in 160 hours in two weeks. With this veto, Gov. Mills sided with industry lobbyists who do not.

Following her veto, the governor signed an executive order to re-form the stakeholders group to craft a minimum-wage policy for farmworkers. The problem is the bill she vetoed already included several concessions that undercut worker protections. We expect farm lobbyists will push to weaken things further, potentially seeking a lower minimum wage for farmworkers than the one covering all other workers; to allow low-wage child labor; to prohibit workers from discussing their working conditions, and to prevent them from choosing whether to work excessive overtime hours. Will the governor again go along with them? We will see.

This session’s bill represented a small step toward justice for those who do the back-breaking work that fuels our agricultural sector and feeds our state. These workers deserve more than the bare minimum, but even that was too much. As we continue working to advance farmworkers’ basic economic rights, we will not stop our efforts until everyone in our state can go to work with dignity.

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