WASHINGTON – By 9 a.m., when some people are just sitting down to breakfast, the four men who work on Jean Phillips’ Frederick County farm have been up for hours and have already picked about 1,200 ears of corn.
Then, it’s usually on to smaller pickings.
Phillips’ 9,000 tomato plants produced 40,000 boxes of tomatoes last year. That means that each worker on her farm picks an average of 50 or so 25-pound boxes in an afternoon, often in 90-degree heat. A really fast worker can pick up to 100 boxes.
But the day doesn’t end there. The tomatoes and other produce still need washing, grading, sorting, weighing and loading.
“It breaks your back,” said Miguel Gomez, a worker from Mexico who harvests crops from May to November on another farm in Maryland. “But since we were little (children) in provincial Mexico, we got used to working very hard.”
A typical workday for migrant farm workers in Maryland starts at sun-up and lasts up to 14 hours during the busiest point in the harvest. Days are usually packed from start to finish, with lunch being the only break. And workweeks often tumble into Sundays.
In and around the harvest, workers spend hours preparing fields, planting, weeding, pruning and trimming trees.
By law, the work earns them at least the federal minimum wage. In Maryland, the average hourly wage for farm workers is a bit higher: $7.34 per hour, according to a 1999 survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But farm workers don’t get overtime at 40 hours per week like most people. Maryland law requires that they work 60 hours in a week before they are eligible for overtime pay.
And some growers pay workers by the piece. “That’s where they (workers) can really make the big money,” said Phillips.
On her farm, workers make $1.50 per box of tomatoes, which translates into $75 for the average 50 boxes picked — well over the minimum wage. She pays an hourly rate for other kinds of work like boxing and grading tomatoes.
Piecework, however, can put a lot of pressure on older workers who have slowed down. Even though they are still guaranteed the hourly minimum wage by law, regardless of the number of pieces they produce, advocates for farm workers say that unscrupulous employers will find a way around the minimum.
Because of the seasonal nature of the work, the annual income of farm workers tends to be low. A National Agricultural Worker Survey by the U.S. Department of Labor found that the median personal income for farm workers nationally was between $5,000 and $7,500.
For that reason, many migrant farm workers want to pack as many work hours into the season as possible.
“If they are not working more than 50 hours, they will look around for more,” said Brennan Starkey, a spinach farmer who said he often has trouble providing enough hours to workers on his Kent County farm.
“For us, it’s all about work,” said Simon Gonzalez, 25, a migrant worker who comes to Maryland every spring from Mexico. He sends most of what he makes back home to his family.
“I would make seven dollars a day in the field in Mexico,” said Gonzalez. “Here, I make 60 dollars every day that I am here.”
But while money is good, relatively speaking, the work is still hard. And the jobs are still thousands of miles from home for many of the workers.
Few speak English, making it even harder to fit in here, where they already stand out. They tend to stick together, amusing themselves by fishing or watching Spanish-language soap operas, maybe taking an occasional shopping trip in a nearby city.
“This life can be very hard and also very boring,” said Gonzalez, who has a fiancee waiting for him back home.
-30- CNS 12-14-01