Originally published on La Cooperativa  | June 2022

As employees working in the State of California, agricultural workers have certain rights that are protected by law. These rights are protected under the federal Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers Protection Act, which was enacted by Congress in 1970. The Act requires that employers provide their employees with working conditions that are safe and free of health hazards. There are two agencies in California that protect workers’ rights: the Wage and Hour Division, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA – Cal/ OSHA in California). The Wage and Hour Division oversees worker rights regarding employee pay and worker transportation, while Cal/OSHA makes sure employers are following rules about health and safety at the workplace.

What are these rights?

To understand which agencies enforce which rights, the information below is divided into two sections: the first are the rights enforced by the Wage and Hour Division, and the second section, by Cal/OSHA. Having them broken up into two sections will make it easier to know whom to contact if you encounter a violation at your jobsite. Also below, you will find some tips to keep in mind, provided by OSHA and the Wage and Hour Division.

1. Farm worker rights enforced by Wage and Hour Division

Employees have the right to information:When recruited for a new job, employees must receive correct information about the wages and working conditions they will experience in writing and in a language the employee understands.

Employees have the right to be paid:
Employers must pay employees on time and provide their workers with itemized statements of earnings or deductions for each pay period. Agricultural employers must pay their workers for all hours worked. Here in the State of California, employees must be paid a minimum of $8.00 per hour for all hours worked. For example, if an employee is told to report to a jobsite at a certain time, but work is postponed, the worker needs to make sure they are paid for ALL HOURS, starting from the time they arrived at the jobsite.

Smart Tip: To be sure your employer is following the law, it is very important that you keep track of all hours you have worked. When you get your paycheck, make sure you have been paid for all the time you worked, and that ALL the hours you worked have been recorded on your check.

Employees have the right to safe transportation: If an employer is providing an employee with transportation to a jobsite, the vehicle used must be properly insured and operated by a licensed driver. The vehicle must also meet federal and safety standards (seatbelts, airbags, etc.). Sometimes crew leaders will charge a fee for transportation. If there is a fee, it must be made known to the employee before it is deducted from their pay.

Smart Tip: If the vehicle is unsafe, uninsured, or the driver is unlicensed, you should not pay a transportation fee, and you should report the violations to the Wage and Hour Division.

Filing a complaint with the Wage and Hour Division:

If any of the above rights and requirements are not provided by an employer, an employee should call the Wage and Hour Division. Once an operator is reached, they will be able to put an employee in contact with an office who will respond to the complaint. Call the Wage and Hour Division’s toll-free help line, available from 8am to 5pm, in your time zone, at 1-866-4US-WAGE or 1-866-487-9243. Spanish and English options are available.

2. Farm worker rights enforced by Cal/OSHA

The following are farmworker rights and regulations that agricultural employers must provide to their employees in order to ensure the safety and health of farm workers:

Employees have the right to breaks:Farm work is often completed in the sun, which can make it extremely hot. In order to keep workers safe from heat exhaustion and other heat related illnesses, OSHA enforces rules about breaks that agricultural employers must follow. As the temperature gets hotter outside, employees have the right to a 15-minute resting break in the shade each hour to keep their bodies cool and safe from heat illnesses. It is important to make sure that employers are providing SHADE for their employees’ breaks.

Smart Tip: In addition to providing employees with frequent breaks in the shade, employers should be scheduling work so that their employees are doing the hardest jobs during the coolest times of the day (early morning).

Employees have the right to safe housing: For seasonal work, some farm workers rely on employer-provided temporary labor camps for housing. In these situations, the labor camps must provide shelter (meaning protection from outside elements with strong walls and a ceiling), a clean water supply for drinking, working toilet facilities, lighting, trash disposal, an operating kitchen (refrigerator, cooking appliances, sink), dining hall and feeding facilities, insect and rodent control and first aid.

Employees have the right to potable drinking water: When there are workers in the fields, agricultural employers are required to provide their employees with potable drinking water (this means that the water meets the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Primary Drinking Water Regulations). The water must be clean and safe for drinking. A water source must be provided and placed in locations readily accessible to all employees. The drinking water provided should be cool, and there should be sufficient amounts to meet the needs of all employees. Additionally, the water should be given out in single-use drinking cups or by drinking fountains. The use of shared drinking cups or “scoops” is prohibited.

Smart Tip: According to OSHA’s website, when the temperatures increase outside, farm working employees should be drinking a cup of cool water every fifteen minutes. Employees should drink water throughout the day, even when they are not thirsty, to protect themselves from the heat, and it is best to drink smaller amounts of water at each water break rather than one large amount of water.

Employees have the right to well maintained toilet facilities and hand washing facilities: The employer provided toilets may be fixed to the ground or portable. There should be one toilet and hand washing facility provided for each twenty employees. The toilet facilities provided to workers should be private with doors that close and lock from the inside, and these toilet and hand washing facilities need to be easy to get to and very close to each other. The hand washing facilities provided to employees should have an adequate supply of water, soap and single-use towels.

Employees have the right to training about the importance of practicing good hygiene: Employers must provide their workers with information on the importance of good hygiene practices to minimize diseases and pesticide exposure. These include information about hand washing and removing pesticide-contaminated clothing.

The importance of Shade, Water & Rest

OSHA is making a point to inform employers about the importance of providing their workers with rest, shade and water during the hot summer months. In order to be sure workers’ rights are being protected and heat illnesses do not occur, Cal/OSHA began a campaign called Water. Rest. Shade.

Smart Tips from OSHA’s campaign website to protect workers from heat illnesses:

  • Drink water every 15 minutes, even if you’re not thirsty.
  • Rest in the shade to cool down.
  • Wear a hat and light-colored clothing.
  • Keep an eye on fellow workers.

Filing a complaint

As mentioned above, if your employer does not provide water, rest or shade as REQUIRED by law, workers have the right to make a complaint to OSHA. OSHA will investigate if a complaint is made about any workers being in danger of illness or death. It is illegal for your employer to fire or punish you for reporting or making a complaint about unsafe working conditions. And OSHA will not ask any worker about their immigration status.

Workers can contact OSHA directly to file a complaint, or a community organization can assist in filing the complaint. Community organizations that can assist include worker centers, churches and other local groups.

If a worker needs to file a more general complaint about any safety or health related employer violation, they can call or visit a local OSHA office. The address and phone number for each office can be found by calling 1-800-321-OSHA(6742) and follow the prompt for “make a complaint” (enter your zip code when asked to find the closest OSHA office). Employees can call this number for any safety or health complaints, including complaints about not enough breaks, shade or water.

OSHA will respond quickly if the employee can provide the following information:

  • The name of the employer or company and the kind of work being done.
  • Where the job is located – this is important to OSHA can find the workplace.
  • The problem – no water, rest, toilet, shade or training about staying safe on the jobsite – give OSHA as many details as possible about the problem.
  • The number of workers at the site and what language they speak.
  • The hours of work and how long the work will continue at that location
  • The employee’s name (your name)– OSHA will not tell an employer who called, and employees are not required to give their name if they don’t want to.

After filing a complaint with OSHA, inspectors will come to a worksite if they believe an employer is violating worker health and safety standards or workers are in danger of heat illness or death. They will ask the workers and employers questions to find out more about the problems. Employees have the right to talk with an inspector in private. If an employee would like a private meeting, they should get the inspectors phone number and talk when not at work. When speaking with an OSHA inspector, employees need to make sure to tell the inspector about any problems and any changes that are needed to protect workers’ health and safety.