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Farmworker minimum wage bill draws broad support, and some criticism, at public hearing

In this Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, photo, a worker rakes wild blueberries at a farm in Union, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press file
In this Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, photo, a worker rakes wild blueberries at a farm in Union, Maine.

State lawmakers today heard broadly supportive testimony today on a bill to establish a minimum wage for farmworkers. But while many industry groups hailed the legislation as an important compromise, some worker advocates criticized certain labor provisions.

The bill, introduced by Gov. Janet Mills, would require employers to pay agricultural workers no less than the state minimum wage - currently $14.15 per hour - beginning Sept. 1.

At a public hearing on Tuesday, the proposal drew support from farmers, worker advocates, and agricultural industry groups.

But Andrew Schmidt, with the Maine Employment Lawyers Association, criticized a provision that only the state Department of Labor, and not workers themselves, can pursue legal action in disputes over unpaid wages.

"By denying farmworkers access to courthouse, it would effectively endorse a system of second class rights for some of our most vulnerable workers," he said.

Juana Rodriguez Vazquez, with the farmworker advocacy group Mano en Mano, called the bill an important step forward.

"A step toward recognizing the true value of the work that farmworkers do, and the true value of their role in our communities," Vazquez said.

But Vazquez and other advocates also criticized the bill for a lack of protections relating to overtime pay and rest breaks.

The legislation builds on the work of a committee of agricultural interests and farmworker advocates convened by Gov. Mills. The governor vetoed a previous farmworker minimum wage bill last year.