Refugee Farmer Project.

Farmers of all cultures and backgrounds tend to share a culture of reciprocity: since the work of growing ebbs and flows throughout the season, farmers often pool their efforts during busy times.

Under the US’s Fair Labor Standards Act, however, volunteer work for a for-profit business is illegal.  Agricultural workers are exempt from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime protections; however, the US government still considers them employees. Therefore, if a farmer “volunteers” to help his friend bring in a crop, the federal government considers that volunteer farmer to be an employee and may fine the friend for not paying employment taxes and not providing worker’s compensation to the volunteer, among other violations of state and federal law.

In 2004, Hmong, Mien, and Lao refugee farmers in California’s fertile Central Valley began to receive citations from the state labor agency because they were sharing their work reciprocally. The California Division of Workers’ Compensation has fined individual farmers between $14,000 and $26,000 each for noncompliance with just the worker’s compensation requirement.

Lawmakers introduced a bill in 2009 that would exempt very small farms (with owner taxable income less than $10,000) from the workers compensation requirements. However, unions and other groups opposed the law, because they argued that all workers need to be protected on the job.

The Sustainable Economies Law Center has begun a legal clinic for these farmers called the Refugee Farmer Project; this clinic has held legal advice sessions for farmers and has developed training materials and other resources. Check out what the SELC is doing here!

While this particular story is about rural farmers, urban farmers who are not part of nonprofit organizations must be careful about the kind of help they accept. This free help could end up costing a lot of money in fines and back pay to your “volunteers.”

If you live in Maryland and have questions about your particular organization or project, contact the Community Law Center for resources!

Posted on by Becky Witt

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