EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – New Mexico is raising its hourly minimum wage to $11.50 cents starting next week, a $1 increase to help working families make ends meet.
However, advocates worry farm workers in the southern portion of the state will be left out because of inherent flaws in how they get paid. The problem is farm laborers aren’t employed by the farms but by contractors, some of whom have been gaming the system for decades, said Carlos Marentes, executive director of the Border Farm Workers Center.
“There is tremendous wage theft in the agroindustry,” he said. “Chile pickers, for instance, are paid 75 to 95 cents per bucket, so they will never produce enough to make the minimum wage. Now, the law says if you don’t harvest sufficient amount to equal to the minimum wage, they must pay you the difference. That seldom happens.”
Picking chile, onions or lettuce is back-breaking work that involves constantly bending over to pluck the vegetable from the plant, drop it in a bucket and slowly move along the furrows until it’s filled. They then walk over to deposit the product in large boxes atop a parked truck.
A chile-picker must fill 15.3 buckets per hour to get to $11.50 at 75 cents per bucket; not even the most skilled farm laborers in the region can do that, Marentes said.
“The way contractors get around not paying the hourly rate is by reporting that you worked two hours or three hours, that way they only pay you the bucket rate,” he said, adding that few farm laborers complain to the Labor Department out of fear of being cut off by the contractor, even though retaliation is against the law.
Marentes said he has pointed out the discrepancy to the workers but runs into cultural barriers.
“They tell me, ‘How could I have gone all the way to Deming (New Mexico) to work two hours?’ But then they tell me it’s OK because in Juarez they wouldn’t be able to make the money they’re being paid,” he said.
New Mexico plans to increase the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2023. The federal minimum wage remains at $7.25 an hour. Waitresses and other employees that receive tips are exempt from that increase. Tipped employees will get $2.88 an hour.
Employers are required to post the New Mexico Minimum Wage Act Summary Poster in an area that is easily visible to all workers.