The price of picking blueberries in rural Maine

Maine has repeatedly floated bills to include farmworkers in the state’s minimum wage law, but the Democratic governor has vetoed it — and laborers say a lack of legal protections makes it impossible for them to speak up.
Ripe blueberries growing on a branch.
Photo by Corwinhee/Wikimedia.
This story was originally published by Ambrook Research, which publishes original research and stories on issues facing modern agriculture. Its stories are editorially independent but backed by Ambrook, a company making sustainability profitable in natural resource industries, starting by providing back-office financial tools for farmers.

Milbridge is pretty quiet for a lot of the year. A handful of businesses dot the downtown, which runs for less than half a mile along Route 1 as the road winds its way toward the Canadian border.

With fewer than 1,400 residents, Milbridge doubles its size in the late summer and then again in the fall — first for blueberry season and then for wreath processing in October. Another key industry is the nearly year-round processing of sea cucumbers, which can help make stocks for stews.

When Juana Rodriguez-Vazquez got here with her family in 1998, she was in elementary school — one of only about 150 kids her age in Milbridge at the time — but she’d already seen much of the U.S. Orange season in Florida, apple harvest in Michigan, blueberry picking in Maine.

The farms around Milbridge are dependent on people like the Rodriguez-Vazquez family because there aren’t enough residents to support the workload.

“When I was a kid, when we were traveling, I remember being out there in the fields with apples and oranges and green beans,” Rodriguez-Vazquez said. “A lot of the housing for employees, their housing is pretty much out in the fields.”

This October, about 1,000 workers arrived in the Millbridge area for the wreath season, just as the state’s Department of Labor (DOL) was hosting hearings and discussions on whether farmworkers should be included in the state’s minimum wage law.

They have long been excluded from the state’s regulations for minimum wage, an issue that lawmakers sought to address by passing a law that would have raised the base pay from the federal rate of $7.25 per hour to $13.80 per hour.

But although the law passed, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills vetoed it earlier this summer, opting instead to write an executive order that would create a committee to make recommendations about how to compromise on the issue by increasing the minimum wage while maintaining industry desires, like a potential youth exception.

It’s the second time Mills has vetoed a bill that would have added minimum wage protections for farmworkers.

But advocates for workers argue the process is flawed from the start, failing to provide legal protections for workers that speak out — favoring employers, who have freedom to speak publicly about their needs and who have the legal ability to fire workers who advocate for higher wages.

As a teenager, Rodriguez-Vazquez worked during each season that came up. Raking blueberries, making wreaths for a company that at the time supplied L.L. Bean, and processing sea cucumbers.

“They’re still getting the same pay that I got when I was 15,” Rodriguez-Vazquez said of the wreath workers working in Washington County.

She doesn’t work in the fields anymore. Since 2012, she’s been working with the Milbridge-based nonprofit Mano en Mano, which provides basic services to the local population of migrant farmworkers — this past year she was named executive director.

In the past few months, she said, the state government has put farmworkers in a position where they can’t speak up.

“I think we all know there are some power dynamics played by employers in terms of their ability to speak up, and if they do, there is retaliation in terms of loss of employment,” Rodriguez-Vazquez said. “Farmworkers haven’t had the ability to do that in a way that would feel good for them.”

A blueberry field
Blueberry barrens near Main Street in Columbia Falls. Photo by Kate Cough.

The issue of minimum wage exemptions for farmworkers certainly isn’t unique to Maine. At the federal level, farms have to pay the $7.25 per hour minimum wage only if they employ “500 man-days” within a three-month period, and family members are exempt from minimum wage — a major benefit for Maine farmers, given that many are family owned and operated.

According to the National Agricultural Law Center (NALC), 22 U.S. states don’t mandate a minimum wage higher than the federal rate. Seven of those are states that actually have passed higher minimum wage laws for the state in general, but exempt agricultural workers. Massachusetts splits the difference: It generally requires employers to pay workers $14.25 per hour, but farmworkers only get $8.00.

In New York, the question of wages has pitted workers against employers in a battle that has played out in both state budget proposals and federal court rooms. In Washington and Oregon, workers won the right to overtime — in Washington, they sued the state to achieve this — and were met with strong opposition from industry groups. And at the federal level, advocacy groups like Farmworker Justice want to end the exemption that keeps farm laborers from getting minimum wage nationally.

In Maine, farmworkers find the starkest wage contrast in the nation, according to NALC’s data. The minimum wage was just increased to $15.00 per hour this summer, but farmworkers have once again been excluded. Despite the exemption, workers are still coming to Maine.

“They’re coming here and they’re able to make more than back home most of the time,” Rodriguez-Vazquez said. “They’re grateful and they don’t want to mess up anything. That can be hard as an advocate and not have a lot of say because we follow the lead of the community.”

Thom Harnett worked with migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the 1980s as a lawyer with United Farm Workers, then later pivoted to local and state politics. He was serving in Maine’s House of Representatives in 2019 when he initially introduced two bills to deal with this problem.

The first would have included agriculture in the state minimum wage and added overtime protection. The second would have allowed workers to participate in collective bargaining without fear of reprisal.

On his first try, the bills didn’t even reach a vote. It was only after several key worker protections were removed, he said, that the bills were able to be passed after being reintroduced early this year.

“The minimum wage bill was continually amended by us giving up issues like overtime,” Harnett said. “It would also have made available to farmworkers an unpaid 30-minute rest period every six hours, which is what all employees in the state of Maine get … and it would have limited overtime to no more than 80 hours of mandatory overtime in a two-week period, meaning that you could not force people to work more than 160 hours in a two-week period.”

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) put out a statement after Mills’ summer veto saying they were “astounded” at her decision and casting doubt on her desire to find a compromise, noting that her opposition came from the amendments to the bill and not the plan to increase the minimum wage itself.

“It is impossible to accept this explanation of her action,” said Heather Spalding, MOFGA’s deputy director and senior policy director. “It is disingenuous for her to say that she supports minimum wage for farmworkers when she won’t even allow a stripped-down bill with many exemptions for agricultural employers to pass into law.”

The DOL declined several requests for an interview on the topic, and the governor’s spokesperson did not respond to an interview request. The state is in the middle of hearing input in its committee about how to resolve the issue. They are hearing from farmers, the AFL-CIO, MOFGA, and lobbyists from associations that represent every major crop in the state.

But to Rodriguez-Vazquez, there is a fundamental flaw in the approach: Without protections for workers themselves, they can’t actually speak about their own experience.

“I think it’s hard when there’s a system where you see the resources, the power, the protection, the privilege that farm owners, farm employers have over their employees,” she said. “They’re working for an employer that basically has a lot of power over their hours, their housing, their wage, everything … Farmers, they can speak up, they have nothing to lose in terms of being able to speak up.”

The Maine AFL-CIO has been participating in the DOL’s committee hearings, and executive director Matt Schlobohm said he felt the executive order Mills issued indicated a desire to include farmworkers in the state minimum wage.

That said, the issues he’s noticed in hearings so far is the way farms and lobbyist groups are concerned about specific circumstances, like wanting to carve out an exception for youth workers. He said farmers and agricultural lobbyists have also voiced a desire to ensure that the minimum wage protection isn’t included in the same section of state law that covers minimum wage generally.

blueberries growing in the wild
Courtesy: University of Maine Extension

Lobbying groups have routinely pointed to pressure from clients like grocery stores as the price fixers in agriculture, saying that meeting the minimum wage will drive farms out of business because they can’t raise the prices supermarkets and restaurants will pay.

The Maine Farm Bureau, one of the groups that opposed the bill before it was vetoed, has used the committee process to advocate for carve-outs rather than fully opposing a minimum wage increase.

Julie Ann Smith, the bureau’s director, told the Maine Morning Star in September that her group supported the effort in general but wanted there to be a smaller minimum wage for youth workers and protection for piece-rate systems where they exist. She also opposed overtime protections for workers.

To Schlobohm, the fundamental economics of agriculture — particularly in a state like Maine with shorter harvest seasons — can exacerbate tensions for workers.

“It in part translates into certain farmers getting pitted against farmworkers that muddies the more systemic issues: that our model of food economics are just incredibly brutal to farmworkers and small farms alike,” he said. “There are times where I’m frustrated, at times I don’t feel like I have an answer. Obviously we should have a minimum wage, but how can we have a healthy, sustainable food system? Because that’s obviously not what we have now.”

Beyond the industry perspective being heard in Augusta, Maine’s deeply mixed political environment can also prove complicated.

Jeff Spinney owns the small family-run Albee Farm in Alna that his wife has managed since they bought it several years ago. He primarily has family work on the property to cultivate fruits and veggies, which they sell locally, but regularly brings in outside employees when there is a larger project.

“You cannot artificially — from the government — say that you have to pay a certain rate for a certain thing that just isn’t worth it,” Spinney said, arguing the market for farm labor couldn’t sustain $15 per hour. In his view, he said, farmworkers simply aren’t worth that amount of money.

“You can make all the compelling, feel-good arguments you want, but certain things are just worth certain amounts. You can’t force it.”

He called the problem one of entitlement and argued that it was less about the economics of agriculture and said it was employees “own fault” if they were stuck in a job that didn’t pay well.

“Those workers need to figure out if it’s sustainable to them,” he said. “If it’s not sustainable to them, then quite frankly they shouldn’t do it, they should go do something else.”

Despite the challenges of operating on tight margins, not all Maine farmers share Spinney’s view. MOGFA and other Maine farming groups have come out in support of the wage increase, while farmer Glenn Shourds of Bowdoinham told a local CBS affiliate, “If they’re going to work as hard as they do, they deserve equal pay.”

“They’ve never really been treated as employees. They’ve been a class of their own. And that’s not fair,” he continued.

The final committee hearing took place in Augusta on December 11, and the DOL will put together a report with suggestions.

Schlobohm said he thinks the 2024 legislative session will end with farmworkers included in the minimum wage, even if other worker protections are still missing. Both Schlobohm and Rodriguez-Vazquez noted the state hadn’t provided a way for farmworkers to speak in support of the minimum wage without fear or retaliation.

Rodriguez-Vazquez, in reflecting on her own journey from working on farms to educating the children of migrant workers — and now advocating for them formally — said she still fears reprisal when she speaks out due to the mentality that protection for workers is bad for business.

“I think for me it’s hard, my family is a business-owning family in the town of Milbridge,” she said. “For me to speak up, there is retaliation even to me and my family. There are employers that are against this … Anything that’s out there that I’ve said can come back to hurt my family and I don’t want to do that.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Heather Spalding’s role at MOFGA.

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Jack Dodson

Jack Dodson is a reporter and documentary filmmaker most recently based in Palestine-Israel. He has reported for Vice, BBC, The Intercept, and Middle East Eye, among many others. He has a master’s in investigative journalism and documentary from Columbia Journalism School.
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