Gov. Phil Batt has angered farm worker advocates by backing away from comments that indicated he supported guaranteeing laborers at least the minimum wage.
At the July 6 Farmworker Appreciation Day in Caldwell, Batt told KTVB-TV: “I would have no objections to bringing them under the minimum-wage laws of the state of Idaho, because in most cases they’re paid more anyhow.”
That was applauded by farm workers because some do not always receive the $4.75 hourly minimum wage.
However, about two weeks after the farm worker festival, Batt made it clear he does not plan to support the change after all.
“I believe that there are good reasons why this should not happen,” the governor said in a July 22 letter published in the Idaho Press-Tribune.
“With few exceptions, farmers pay minimum wages, or well above minimum wages,” he added. “I don’t believe the law needs changing.”
Batt’s apparent change has drawn fire from the Idaho Migrant Council. It is continuing to pressure Batt to help overturn state laws that do not guarantee minimum wage for farmhands, said executive director Humberto Fuentes.
“We have people calling him the grandfather of civil rights, and for him not to support minimum wage for farm workers is disappointing to me,” Fuentes said Tuesday.
Batt was instrumental in persuading Idaho lawmakers to approve giving farmhands worker’s compensation insurance.
His spokesman, Frank Lockwood, said he could not explain the difference in the governor’s comments.
Batt has said he lost some political support from farmers after he pushed the worker’s compensation package.
“It appears that the governor was caught up in the festivities and had a minor political slip-up,” Migrant Council Employment Director Andrew Rodriguez said in a July 29 letter.
Batt has reasoned no change is needed because most farm workers receive minimum wage. But state Labor Department data show many do not.
“General farm workers” earned a median wage of $4.25 an hour, according to the Labor Department’s 1995 wage survey, the most recent available. That is below the current $4.75 minimum, which is scheduled to rise to $5.15 on Sept. 1.
The survey, however, was taken of companies that contract to harvest crops and perform other labor, and does not include what farmers pay, senior research analyst Lee Moon said.
Broader Labor Department surveys show many farm workers earn $4.75 to $5.50 an hour, she said.
Either way, the data do not tell the entire story, Fuentes said.