Just as the growing season in Michigan's Great Southwest is getting underway, the debate over wage rates for migrant and seasonal farm workers has been renewed. The results could have a substantive impact on seasonal worker hiring across the region this summer and fall.
The Michigan Civil Rights Commission on Monday sent Attorney General Dana Nessel a request to reconsider a ruling from former Attorney General Bill Schuette that said certain migrant and seasonal farm workers (MSFWs) are not entitled to minimum wage under state law.
The action comes after the Commission unanimously approved the request at their March 25th meeting in Clinton Township. In considering Attorney General Opinion #7301, the Commission recognized that if the opinion stands, some MSFWs, paid on a per piece basis, would be negatively impacted and may not receive fair remuneration from Michigan employers.
Agustin Arbulu is Director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. He argues, “Migrant farm workers work long hours under difficult conditions and earn every penny of a minimum-wage paycheck,” adding, “State and federal law establishes their right to the minimum wage, and Michigan has a decade-long position that their wages are protected under law. It is important that the state law continue serving as a safety net in paying no less than the minimum wage for MSFWs, allowing them to continue to contribute to the vitality of Michigan’s agricultural economy. The law is clear and the former Attorney General was simply wrong in issuing AG Opinion 7301.”
In November of 2016, the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) Wage and Hour Division announced their intention to eliminate state minimum wage protection for farm workers on small farms and requested the Attorney General to weigh in, which led to the issuance of AG Opinion 7301 in late 2017.
Michigan employs the largest number of MSFW families in the entire Midwest, with a population of more than 94,000 individuals, including more than 42,000 who are 19 years of age or younger.
The Commission has been a leading voice for protecting the rights of Michigan’s itinerant community. In 2009, the Commission launched an investigation into the working and living conditions of migrant farm workers in the state. In March of 2010, the Commission released “A Report on the Conditions of Migrant and Seasonal Farm Workers in Michigan” with a list of recommendations, including:
- Providing a minimum wage for migrant and seasonal farm workers in Michigan,
- Improving the living and working conditions of migrant farm workers, and
- Eliminating illegal use of child labor in agriculture.
Civil Rights Director Arbulu contends, “Denying the minimum wage to any group of workers has a profound impact on the well-being of workers including farm worker families, and will hurt Michigan growers,” He concludes, “Why would a farm worker choose to work for less in Michigan when they can make more in California, Ohio, or any number of other states?”
The Michigan Civil Rights Commission was created by the Michigan Constitution to safeguard constitutional and legal guarantees against discrimination. The Commission is charged with investigating alleged discrimination against any person because of religion, race, color or national origin, sex, age, marital status, height, weight, arrest record, and physical and mental disability. The Michigan Department of Civil Rights serves as the operational arm of the Commission.