Ag at Large - Study reveals California farm worker stability

Ag at Large - Study reveals California farm worker stability

A new study shows that the enormous farm work force in California - more than 800,000 by some counts - is becoming increasingly stable, and the need for it is growing in spite of gains made by mechanical harvesting.      

Statistics reveal that about 60 percent of farm workers work for one employer, and those who shift from one work location to another only change once during a season.

The percentage of workers who are undocumented (here illegally) has decreased by 10 percent in the past 10 years.

This new picture of the farm work force was drawn in a report by veteran observer and analyst Emeritus Professor Philip Martin of the University of California (UC), Davis. Assisting in collecting data for the writing were Brandon Hooker and Andrew Wong, research specialists at California Employment Development Department.

Their work was published in bi-monthly Update, published by UC’s Division of Agricultural and Resource Economics July-August issue.

Their data suggests most of the farm work force is engaged in fruit, vegetable and horticultural production, although other segments including cattle ranching, poultry and egg production, and support industries attract significant numbers, and also provide better pay.   

By a predominate amount, the single employer for the majority of farm workers is a farm labor contractor. While a worker so employed may be assigned to several locations during a typical season, his employer remains a single contractor.

A trade association of farm labor contractors in the state has gained stature in the last 15 years, and the compliance of its members with state labor regulations has markedly improved.

The statistics scoured by the team revealed that 60 percent of the state’s crop workers have been unauthorized for the past 10 years, 10 percentage points higher than the U. S. average. This search revealed that 85 percent of the farm workers were born in Mexico.

Average farm worker earnings

The 803,000 farm workers in 2012 earned a total of $14.1 billion, 70 percent paid by agricultural employers. That resulted in average earnings per worker of almost $18,000.

Average earnings for different classifications of workers in 2012 ranged from $11,700 to $25,000. 

While earnings were expectedly lowest in sectors with the highest share of seasonal jobs, the statistics showed that a high percentage of farm work is not seasonal, such as greenhouses, nurseries, and year round crop maintenance. Work in crop support industries including feed production plus chemical manufacturing and distribution resulted in higher compensation than the amount crop workers received.

The researchers call this category “support crop production.” It included almost 379,000 workers, dwarfing the 152,542 workers in the classification of fruit-nut tree farming, and the 47,254 workers classified as vegetable-melon farming.

Those employed by farm labor contractors were listed in the crop support category, no matter what kind of work or what crop they were involved with.

Looking closely at the workers whose maximum earnings came from farm employers, the research team found that two thirds who worked in fruit and vegetable production stayed with only one employer without change.

Of those listed in crop support work two thirds remained with one employer for the entire work season.

Professor Martin and his team conclude that the improved stability of the agricultural work force, especially the reduction from three to two workers per average job, reflects either a major reduction in false social security numbers or a major improvement in the stability of the entire group.

With so many distorted pictures painted for so long about the circumstances of farm workers in California, this in-depth view takes us a long way toward a better understanding of the real conditions of agricultural workers in the state.

It suggests a whole new perspective on the word “migrant” as it relates – or does not relate – to farm employees in California. 

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