Introduction to PTLA
Pine Tree Legal Assistance of Maine can help farmworkers with legal problems. We offer free legal advice and representation to people who work in fields, such as orchards and vegetable farms, as well as dairy workers, seafood workers, wreath makers, forestry workers, and people who work in fruit and vegetable packing houses.
The Farmworker Unit telephone number is (207) 942-0673; Office Cell/WhatsApp is (207) 233-2930. Our communications with you are always confidential -- we will not share your information with anyone.
We represent people with issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as basic employment law protections such as wages, poor working conditions, and poor housing conditions.
We also offer free education materials such as our annual Harvest Calendar, an annual H-2A newsletter, and information about workers’ rights laws in English, Spanish, and Haitian-Creole.
What is COVID-19 and how can I avoid catching it?
COVID-19 is an illness that spreads quickly from person to person. You can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by:
- always wearing a face mask when you are around people;
- washing your hands or using hand sanitizer often; and
- keeping a distance of six feet (two meters) between you and other people (this is called social distancing).
Your employer must provide a safe work environment that is free of hazards. This includes protections against COVID-19. You should be given personal protective equipment (PPE) if necessary, face masks, and the ability to stay six feet away from other workers.
If you don’t have clean water to wash your hands, you should ask your boss to provide it. The law says that you must have clean water within ¼ mile of where you are working. Because of the current pandemic, the federal government has recommended that clean water for handwashing be made even more available. Farmworkers must have reasonable access to handwashing facilities with soap, clean water, and clean, single-use towels. If you do not have this, contact us.
What should I do if I get sick?
COVID-19 is mainly a respiratory illness that affects the lungs. Symptoms include a fever and cough. If you think you are sick, tell your boss right away and do not try to continue working. You should be allowed to stay away from other people until you get better. You must be given enough food and water. If you get very sick and you think you have a serious emergency, call 9-1-1.
There are new laws that can protect you if you cannot work because of the virus. Workers can get two weeks, or 80 hours, of paid sick leave for many reasons related to COVID-19, including if they are sick with COVID-19 or were exposed to it and need to quarantine. It is illegal for your employer to retaliate or discriminate against you for taking this sick leave.
What is workers’ compensation?
If you get sick at work, you might have a claim for workers’ compensation. All farmworkers are eligible for workers’ compensation. You can get workers compensation if you are injured or get sick due to a work condition, whether or not it is from COVID-19. You have the right to medical treatment at no cost to you. The insurance company will pay for your medical bills and possibly some of your lost wages.
If you get injured or sick at work, get medical treatment right away and tell your boss as soon as possible. Tell the doctor you were injured or got sick at work. Follow the doctor’s orders, even if this means staying out of work. Do your best to document your injury. Keep copies of all medical visits, as well as the doctor’s name, address, and other information.
If you are still injured when you go home, you can continue to get medical care. But it is best to start your treatment and your claim before you leave.
How much should I be paid?
All workers have the legal right to earn at least the minimum wage. The minimum wage in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine is the same as the federal minimum wage, or $7.25 per hour. The minimum wage in Connecticut is $12.00 per hour as of September 1, 2020. Even if you are paid by the piece, your wages for the week must average the minimum wage.
There is a special wage for H-2A workers (those with a temporary visa to work on a farm) and workers who work with H-2A workers. In 2020, H-2A workers in New England are entitled to a basic wage of $14.29 per hour.
Farmworkers are not usually entitled to overtime, but some packing house or nursery workers do get overtime.
How can I make sure I am paid for time I spent working?
It is very important to record your hours each day. You should write down:
- the time you start,
- the time you stop and start again for lunch, and
- the time you stop working.
If you are paid a piece rate, you should write down the number of pieces you made or the buckets or boxes you picked, and the piece rate of that crop.
It is important to keep track of these things because the employer might make a mistake. If possible, keep a folder or envelope of your work records, including your pay stubs. Your paystubs are important records of the work you did.
Housing conditions for temporary farmworkers
If your employer provides housing, it must be in good shape. It must be inspected each year. It must be safe and have clean water. Garbage must be removed regularly, and the bathrooms must be cleaned. You must be given enough storage for your food and personal items. If there are charges or expenses for the housing, the information must be posted.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, workers should sleep at least six feet apart, preferably head to toe, to avoid spread of the virus. There should be barriers such as wood or plastic between beds. Bunk beds should be avoided.
Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act
Finally, there is a federal law in the US called the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. It covers most farms and farmworkers. Under this law, you have the right to
- accurate information about your work at the time you are hired;
- accurate and complete wage or pay statements each time you are paid;
- clean and safe housing;
- transportation in safe vehicles (if the employer provides transportation); and
- prompt payment of all wages owed.
If your employer violates any of these provisions, you can get $500 or more for each violation.
For more information, contact Pine Tree’s Farmworker Unit: 207-942-7463; Office Cell, WhatsApp: 207-233-2930.