Why some Michigan farm workers still aren't making minimum wage

Ask any kid where food comes from and he'll say, "The grocery store." It's true in part, but shows how vastly disconnected we are from farming and its impact on all of our lives.

Michigan minimum wage laws, which don't require that farm workers are paid the state minimum wage, further prove this disconnect. In fact, workers throughout the food industry are denied living wages. For instance, servers in Michigan receive $3.23 an hour, which is based on the notion that they will receive at least an average of $5.27 an hour in tips. Here's a worksheet on how that works, if you're interested.

So, if you did the math right, you've worked it out that state minimum wage is currently $8.50. It will jump up to a whopping $8.90 come January, and to $9.25 by January 2018. Now, that's far from the $15 minimum wage that many protesters are fighting for, but it's still more than some Michigan farm workers earn.

Many migrant farm workers (people who move from state to state during harvest seasons to pick fruits and vegetables on farms all over the country) are often paid a "piece-rate," which means they're getting paid based on the weight of the produce they pick. That can often boil down to $4 or $5 an hour.

While LARA laws recently clarified that Michigan farm workers should receive the equivalent of minimum wage, even if they're paid on a piece-rate basis, this law doesn't apply to small farm employees.

A small farm is defined as an operation that uses less than 500 "man days" every three months. A man day is defined as "any day during which an employee performs agricultural work for at least one hour."

So, even though workers are doing the same work on a small farm and they would on a large farm, they aren't getting paid the same wage.

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission really isn't happy with that, so on Monday they made a recommendation that all farm workers be protected under laws that require employers to pay workers the state minimum wage.

To give you an idea of how big the agriculture industry in Michigan is and how many workers might potentially be affected by a bump in wages: The food and agriculture industry contributes $101.2 billion annually to the state’s economy. Additionally, Michigan produces more than 300 commodities, making us the state with the second most diverse agriculture industry in the nation just behind California. In 2014, the number of farms in Michigan totaled 51,600 and the same year farmland totaled just under 10 million acres.

For more facts on Michigan's agricultural industry click here.

Alysa Zavala-Offman

Alysa Zavala-Offman is the managing editor of Detroit Metro Times. She lives in the downriver city of Wyandotte with her husband, toddler, mutt, and two orange cats.
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