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April 2017, Volume 23, Number 2

NAWS: V-shape Trends

The National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS) interviews 2,000 to 4,000 workers each year, making it the largest farm worker survey. Those interviewed are non-H2A workers employed on crop farms, and workers are paid $20 to answer detailed questions about themselves and their families, their current and past jobs, and their health and access to insurance.

The NAWS began interviewing crop workers in 1989, and many trends have a V-shape, beginning high, falling to a nadir around 2000 when unauthorized Mexico-US migration peaked, and rising since the 2008-09 recession. For example, the share of authorized crop workers was over 85 percent in 1990, fell to less than half in 2000, and was over half in 2013-14.

Demographics. The US-born were 40 percent of crop workers in the early 1990s, less than 20 percent in 2000, and 27 percent in 2013-14. The share of crop workers who were born in Mexico has been stable at two-thirds in recent years, and five percent of crop workers were born in Central America and elsewhere in 2013-14. Three-fourths of crop workers are male.

California is different, with far fewer US-born workers; 90 percent of California farm workers were born in Mexico. Since most foreign-born workers are unauthorized, California's share of unauthorized workers is higher, 60 percent or more since the mid-1990s.

Most crop workers are not migrants. There is no single federal definition of a migrant farm worker. The NAWS, which considers a worker to be a migrant if he moved at least 75 miles for a farm job, finds a declining share of migrants, 16 percent in 2013-14. Of those who migrate, only a quarter follow the crops by having at least two farm jobs 75 miles apart. Half shuttle between homes in Mexico and jobs in the US, and a quarter shuttle between homes in the US and farm jobs in the US, as when South Texans move to Michigan. Most migrant farm workers do not do farm work when they are "at home."

The crop workforce is aging. In 1990 and 2000, over half of US crop workers were 20-34, but more recently the share of workers in this age group dropped to 35 percent for the US. Average years of schooling for US crop workers were eight in 1990, seven in 2000, and eight in 2013-14. California crop workers are less educated, with an average seven years of schooling.

The share of US crop workers who speak English well fell from a quarter in 1990 to less than 20 percent in 2000 and was 31 percent in 2013-14. In California, the share of workers speaking English well has always been less than 15 percent.

Almost 60 percent of US and California crop workers are married parents; only a quarter are single with no children, a sharp drop from over 40 percent in 2000. Median personal income has risen to the $15,000 to $17,500 range for US and California crop workers over the past two decades. A rising share of US and California crop worker families, almost half in 2013-14, received some type of public assistance, a sharp jump from less than a quarter in 1990 and 2000.

These demographic data portray an aging male and married crop workforce with children that is settling near their jobs. With fewer young and unauthorized newcomers, there are fewer migrants and more families receiving public assistance benefits, often for US-born children.

Employment. Type of employer data also follows a V-shaped trajectory, starting high, dipping in 2000, and rebounding since. For example, about 85 percent of US crop workers were hired directly in 1990, 73 percent in 2000, and 85 percent in 2013-14; the California direct-hire shares were 73, 55, and 66 percent, that is, the California direct-hire share has not yet returned to 1990 levels.

Average years of farm work experience fell from 10 to eight in 2000 and was 16 years in the US and California in 2013-14, when US and California crop workers were employed an average seven years for their current farm employer.

Average worker-reported earnings were $5.25 an hour in the early 1990s for US crop workers, $6.50 in 2000, and $10.20 in 2013-14, compared to $5.55, $6.55, and $10.10 for California. Farm wages in the past have been higher in California than elsewhere, but today the NAWS finds higher wages outside California. The USDA's farm employer survey, on the other hand, finds higher average hourly earnings in California, $13.81 in 2016, than in the US, $12.98.

US crop workers averaged over 190 days of farm work in 35 weeks in 2013-14, suggesting more than five days of work a week. California crop workers had even more days of farm work, an average 205 days in 36 weeks. The share of US crop workers with at least one nonfarm job was over 30 percent in 1990, 15 percent in 2000, and 25 percent in 2013-14. The California shares are 16, six, and 17 percent, that is, California crop workers are less likely to have nonfarm jobs.

Most crop workers are employed in fruits and vegetables, about 60 percent of US crop workers and almost 90 percent of California crop workers. In 1990, 35 percent of US crop workers were in vegetables and 28 percent were in fruits and nuts. By 2000, it was 25 percent in vegetables and 37 percent in fruits and nuts, and in 2013-14 some 21 percent of workers were in vegetables and 41 percent were in fruits and nuts. In California, the 1990 vegetable share was 27 percent and the fruit and nut share 55 percent; these shares were 19 and 70 in 2000, and 26 and 63 percent in 2013-14, that is, almost 90 percent of California workers were in fruits and vegetables.

The share of US and California crop workers in harvesting jobs has been falling. Harvesting was the primary task of 40 percent of US workers in 1990, 30 percent in 2000, and 23 percent in 2013-14. For California, the harvesting share fell from almost half to 30 percent in 2000 and 25 percent in 2013-14. The most common job today is semi-skilled or technical, such as equipment operator: a third of US workers, and 37 percent of California workers, had such jobs when interviewed in 2013-14.

Most workers plan to continue to do farm work for at least five more years. In 1990, two-thirds of US workers said they would continue to do farm work as long as they could, in 2000 this dipped to 55 percent, and in 2013-14 some 78 percent of workers planned to continue to do farm work indefinitely; the California shares are 75 percent, 65 percent and 80 percent. A declining share, a third of US workers and a quarter of California workers, say they could find a nonfarm job within a month.

The NAWS portrays an aging and settled workforce that lives away from the one farm on which most workers are employed during the year. Most farm workers have not finished high school and most do not speak English well, explaining why many plan to continue to do farm work as long as they can. Half of crop worker households had someone who received benefits from a government means-tested program, and almost 20 percent included someone who received benefits from a contributory program such as unemployment insurance.

With ever-fewer migrants, the farm labor force is less flexible than it was in the past, making it unlikely that workers will move from one state to another in response to state changes in minimum wages and other labor laws.

NAWS. 2016. Findings from the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS) 2013-2014: A Demographic and Employment Profile of United States Farmworkers. Research Report No. 12. December