The number of federal wage and hour investigations of farms hit a record low in 2022, a new Economic Policy Institute report finds. This continues a long-standing decline: Since 2000, the number of investigations closed per year by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) has plummeted by over 60%—from a high of 2,431 to only 879 in fiscal year 2022.
Despite the fact that farmworkers are particularly vulnerable to workplace violations, in total, fewer than 1% of agricultural employers are investigated per year by WHD for violations of the laws that they enforce, which include the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the rules that govern the H-2A visa program, as well as child labor laws. Most farmworkers either lack an immigration status or have a temporary status, which makes it difficult in practice for them to speak out and come forward when workplace violations occur. When so few agricultural employers are investigated each year and workers are afraid to complain, farm employers can violate wage and hour laws with a reasonable expectation that those violations will never be detected.
Data show that WHD is too underfunded and understaffed to adequately protect workers. Despite a mandate to protect 165 million workers, WHD’s 2022 budget was roughly similar to its budget in 2006 (after adjusting for inflation), and the number of WHD investigators in 2022 was just 810, hovering near its record low. In fact, the average number of workers that every wage and hour investigator is responsible for is almost triple what it was in 1973.
The report also reviews the types of violations detected in WHD investigations, finding that from 2000 to 2022, violations of the H-2A visa program—which allows U.S. employers to hire migrant farmworkers for seasonal jobs—accounted for roughly half of back wages and civil money penalties owed by farm employers. The data show a recent shift under the Biden administration, with H-2A violations now accounting for nearly three-fourths of the back wages and civil money penalties owed by farm employers that broke the law.
“Efforts to protect farmworkers have slid backward, with the number of investigations falling even further behind the already record-low levels during the Trump administration, likely due to the Wage and Hour Division being too underfunded and understaffed for the size of the task at hand,” said Daniel Costa, EPI’s Director of Immigration Law and Policy Research and one of the report authors. “This lack of enforcement, combined with the fact that most farmworkers either lack an immigration status or only have a temporary, precarious one with an H-2A visa, makes them vulnerable to wage theft and other forms of exploitation. Unless Congress and the Biden administration do more to protect wages and improve working conditions, many farmworkers will continue to be at risk and have little recourse when employers break the law.”
In particular, Congress should dramatically increase funding for labor standards enforcement to protect farmworkers and pass legislation providing a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrant farmworkers, which would reduce their vulnerability by allowing them to exercise their workplace rights. At the executive branch level, federal agencies can better target currently available resources, issue larger fines and more significant sanctions, and more frequently utilize existing legal mechanisms to encourage compliance. Federal agencies can also put in place measures to allow H-2A farmworkers to change employers more easily, and support and provide immigration status protections for farmworkers in labor disputes, which helps to protect workers from retaliation and hold employers accountable.