N.J. farm workers may not be eligible for $15 minimum wage

Workers remove leaves as nectarines get sorted for packaging

Workers remove leaves as nectarines are sorted for packaging at Eastern ProPak Farmers Cooperative in Glassboro, N.J. (Mel Evans/AP Photo)

Gov. Phil Murphy said it on the campaign trail and again after his inauguration: He wants to gradually hike New Jersey’s minimum wage to $15.

His odds of success are high with a Democrat-led legislature supportive of the proposal.

But not every worker should celebrate.

State Sen. President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said the potential increase may exempt farm workers, noting that the modern agricultural industry can be a tough business for owners.

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“I’m not putting the farming community out of business,” he told Politico last week. (Sweeney’s district is in South Jersey, where the state’s farming industry is concentrated.)

New Jersey would not be alone in creating a minimum wage carve-out for farm workers. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as many as 34 states exempt employees in that sector from their minimum wage laws.

Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, a trade organization that represents farmers, said his group would support an exemption for farm workers.

He said the proposed $15 minimum pay amounts to “an urban wage that is simply unaffordable” for agricultural producers.

“On the farmers’ side, farming is an extremely volatile line of work,” said Kerry Hartington, a South Jersey attorney who has represented agricultural producers as well as farm workers. Changing weather and soil conditions make it difficult for farmers to predict how much money they will make in a year, she said.

“However, on the farm workers’ side, it is extremely difficult physical labor,” Hartington said. Estimating that most South Jersey farm workers make about $8 or $9 per hour, she said they work long days during the peak growing season without being eligible for overtime.

She also highlighted the common public impression that many of these workers are recent immigrants. “I do think there’s definitely a perception that these Hispanic workers are happy to have this work, they’re happy to be paid a small wage,” she said.

Sweeney said other employees, including temporary workers who flock to the Jersey Shore during the summer tourism season, may also be exempt from the $15 minimum.

But on Friday, he told WHYY that state lawmakers still had not worked out the details of a plan to hike the minimum wage, and that he was simply emphasizing that he does not want any plan that would force farmers to close down. “We want to keep the ‘garden’ in the Garden State,” he said.

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