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‘They should value our experience and sacrifice’: Idaho farmworkers struggle with wages

Nov. 8, 2022 Updated Tue., Nov. 8, 2022 at 12:56 p.m.

Rachel Spacek, Catherine Odom, Andrea Teres-Martinez, Idaho Statesman

In March, farmworkers Martina and Teresa asked their employer for a raise.

Working in an onion field in Parma, they were making $14 an hour.

The response: a 50-cent increase.

“It saddens me that in the field, the pay is less for a tough job,” Martina said. “The food we work to grow helps sustain us all, and it’s unjust treatment.”

Martina and Teresa are two among thousands of farmworkers in Idaho who make less money than the starting wages for some fast-food workers, in jobs that sometimes require 30-hour shifts, dangerous equipment and working during extreme heat.

Wages in the Treasure Valley have increased over the past year, the Idaho Statesman previously reported. The average Ada County wage was $1,142 per week, from March 2021 to March 2022, or $21.41 an hour. The average Canyon County weekly wage was $828, or $15.52 an hour. The average wages in Idaho are below the national average.

Even at Canyon County’s average wage of $15 an hour, a worker could afford only a modest one-bedroom home while spending no more than 30% of their income on rent, the Statesman previously reported.

The minimum wage for farmworkers in Idaho is $7.25, but most workers earn more. Their average wage is $14-$15 an hour, according to data from the Idaho Department of Labor.

By contrast, Panda Express has been advertising for part-time workers at $16-$20 per hour in Boise.

“We’re seeing families struggling because their rents are going up,” said Irma Morin, executive director of the Community Council of Idaho, a Latino and farmworker service organization based in Caldwell with offices across Idaho.

In addition to housing costs, many farmworkers have families living with them or they send money back to their extended family in other countries. The inflated price of goods and housing makes it difficult for farmworkers to sustain themselves and their families on $15, or less, an hour.

In Parma, Teresa asked her employer “how much do you value us?” That’s when he gave her the 50-cent raise, she said.

‘I really have to restrain myself from spending money’

Martina considers herself lucky that she rents a room in her best friend’s house. Teresa, also a farmworker in the Parma area, charges Martina and her husband $450 a month.

Even with low rent, Martina struggles. She and her husband often go to food distribution events, and when they do shop, she buys store-brand items that are often the cheapest.

“I work 30 hours (a shift) sometimes and it’s hard to make ends meet, so I really have to restrain myself from spending money,” Martina said in Spanish.

Morin, who works with farmworking families in Canyon County, said it is common that the families share homes with others in the industry.

“What we’re seeing mostly here in this region are families that are unable to afford a home,” Morin said, by phone. “We’re seeing many multifamily households.”

Martina has four daughters, including one in Mexico, and she tries to send money there when she can.

Martina said she loves her job, loves to feel the sun on her face and to spend so much time in nature. But the pay bothers her.

A 2020 study and survey from Boise State University researchers about the well-being of Latina farmworkers found, based on interviews and data collected from 70 Latina farmworkers in Southwest Idaho, that low pay and lack of access to medical care and health insurance were the top concerns for workers.

The Boise State researchers found that, like Martina, women in the agricultural industry who were the sole income earners in their households had a hard time paying rent and for groceries.

The median household income for Latina farmworkers in Southwest Idaho is $20,000 a year, according to the study.

Farmworker earnings fall behind rate of inflation

Patrick Hatzenbuehler, assistant professor and extension specialist of crop economics at the University of Idaho, analyzed the farmworker wage data from the Idaho Department of Labor and compared it to construction worker earnings in Idaho. He told the Statesman by phone that construction workers make $7-$10 more an hour than farmworkers.

The minimum wage for farmworkers hasn’t changed since 2010, when Idaho bumped it to $7.25 to match the federal minimum wage. Any adjustments in wages since then have been a result of market changes, Hatzenbuehler said.

The average wage increase for farmworkers is not keeping up with inflation. The Consumer Price Index, which measures variation between the price of products consumed by households, has outpaced the increase in wages, Hatzenbuehler said.

Inflation increased prices by 7% from 2020 to 2021, according to the Consumer Price Index. In Idaho, farmworker wages increased an average of 4.4%.

“People are approaching the point where they can’t afford what they could afford last year,” Hatzenbuehler said by phone.

The Idaho Department of Labor data shows that the wage for agricultural inspectors, who make sure businesses comply with state and federal regulations, and first-line supervisors, who set work schedules to meet production goals, range from $19 an hour to $27. Wages for graders and sorters are $12 and wages for crop farmworkers are $14.

“Those supervisory positions seemed to be at quite a bit higher wage level,” Hatzenbuehler said.

In addition to onions, Teresa also works in various other fields and helps set irrigation systems, she said.

Most farm work is seasonal, with spikes in workload and hours during planting and harvesting season, but little to no work in the winter.

Martina said she works in an onion packing shed during the winter to ensure she has income during the off-season. Teresa said she is lucky because her husband works for a dairy, where he is employed year-round.

The Boise State study also found that Latina farmworkers were more likely to be employed seasonally than their male counterparts.

Some agricultural employers are higher paying than others

Dairy workers also make slightly higher wages than other farmworkers. Rick Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, said the starting wage for an inexperienced milker, which is an entry-level position, is $15 an hour.

“They just go up from there based on experience and years of work in the industry and job skill,” Naerebout said by phone.

Farmworker wages have been increasing, along with inflationary pressures, Naerebout said by phone. The demand for labor, particularly immigrant labor, is high in agriculture, Naerebout said, which drives up the wages for workers.

“Every industry that relies on immigrant laborers is short workers,” Naerebout said. “Construction, hospitality, landscaping, all those industries, we are always competing with them. We basically are harvesting crops … through the end of October. So it becomes even more difficult to try and find and maintain labor because there’s so much competition for workers.”

Dairy wages are typically higher than other agricultural industries, according to data from the Idaho Department of Labor. Teresa considers her husband’s job in dairy to be more stable than hers, in the onion fields.

Teresa has 27 years of agricultural experience, and Martina has 18, and they say they aren’t fairly compensated for their experience.

Employers often don’t reward workers for their time in the industry and their years of experience, Teresa said.

Their employer was slow to give Martina and Teresa a raise, even though Teresa said they work longer hours and have more experience than other workers.

When asked if she felt like her wage reflected her experience and effort, Teresa said no.

“They should value our experience and sacrifice,” she said in Spanish. “We have been working these jobs for so many years. For example, if the irrigation system bursts, we know how to fix that. We’ve gained that skill.”

  

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