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A tale of two states: farm labor in CA and FL

March 17, 2020

California is the largest farm state, with farm sales of $50 billion in 2017, and the state with the highest farm labor expenses. The state’s farmers had $11 billion in COA total farm labor expenses in 2017, or 28 percent of the $39 billion US total labor expenses. Florida is the fourth largest farm labor state, with farm sales of $7.5 billion and farm labor expenses of $1.8 billion in 2017 (WA had labor expenses of $2.4 billion and TX $2 billion).

The COA reported that US farm sales were $388 billion in 2017, while US farm and contract labor expenses were $39 billion, making the ratio of farm sales to total labor expenses 10 to one. The ratio of farm sales to farm labor and contract labor expenses is smaller in CA and FL, four to one, reflecting the importance of labor-intensive crops in these states.

Florida had the most farm jobs certified to be filled with H-2A workers in FY19, 33,600, while California had 23,300 certified jobs. Each state had one of the five largest H-2A employers, FL’s Farm-Op Kuzzens H-2A and CA’s Fresh Harvest.

Average employment in California has been increasing as measured by the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (www.bls.gov/cew), up from 374,000 in 2009 to 423,000 in 2018 in NAICS 11. The number of agricultural establishments was stable at 17,000, while total agricultural wages paid rose from $9.1 billion in 2009 to $14.6 billion in 2018.

The QCEW has fewer farm employers reporting higher farm wages than the COA. The QCEW reported that the fastest growth in California’s average agricultural employment (NAICS 11) was for FLCs (115115), up from 121,000 in 2009 to 148,000 in 2018. Next was fruits and nuts (1113), where average employment rose from 93,000 to 95,000, followed by three sectors with declining employment, vegetables (1112) down from 32,000 to 31,000, greenhouses and nurseries (1114), down from 31,000 to 26,000, and dairies (11212), down from 19,000 to 18,000.

Florida’s average agricultural employment (NAICS 11) fell from 87,000 to 68,000 between 2009 and 2018, the number of agricultural establishments was stable at 4,900, and total agricultural wages rose from $1.9 billion to $2.2 billion. Florida’s largest agricultural sector is greenhouses and nurseries (1114), where average employment was stable at 22,000 and accounted for a third of the state’s average UI-covered agricultural employment.

The next largest sector was support activities for crop production, 1151, where employment fell from an average 27,000 to 13,000 between 2009 and 2018 and wages fell from $500 million to $375 million. There are two subsectors within 1151 that each accounted for a third of crop support employment, FLCs (115115) had an average 4,500 employees in 2018, and other postharvest support (115114) had an average 4,500 employees. In CA, average FLC employment is two-thirds of average crop support employment, while in FL average FLC employment is one third of average crop support employment.

Average employment in Florida vegetables fell from 17,000 to 12,000 between 2009 and 2018, and in fruits and nuts from 11,000 to 7,000.

Average weekly wages for all workers employed in agriculture were $40 higher in CA than in FL in 2018, but weekly wages rose faster in FL than in CA over the past decade. The wage gap was larger for FLC employees, and the weekly wages of FLC employees rose faster over the decade in CA than in FL, so that CA FLC employees earned $100 a week more than FL FLC employees in 2018.

CA’s weekly wages rose sharply between 2015 and 2016, up an average $40 a week, while FL’s wages rose $40 a week between 2014 and 2015.

The wage hierarchy is also different. In CA, the highest weekly wages were for directly hired vegetable workers, over $800 a week in 2018, while in FL the highest weekly wages were for other postharvest crop support activities, over $600 a week. Greenhouse and nursery, fruit and nut, and FLC employees earned at least $100 a week more in CA than in FL.

One reason for rising average QCEW employment in CA agriculture and declining QCEW employment in FL agriculture may be the different treatment of H-2A workers in state unemployment insurance systems. All H-2A wages are exempt from the 0.7 percent federal FUTA tax that supports the administration of the UI system, but states vary in whether they require employers to report employment and earnings, and to pay UI taxes, on the wages of H-2A workers.

CA’s QCEW data includes H-2A employment and earnings, while FL’s does not, which explains why H-2A certifications and QCEW average crop employment rose together in CA but crop employment fell as H-2A certifications rose in FL.

The ratio of farm sales to farm labor expenses was 4 to 1 in CA and FL in 2017

Sales Farm Labor Contract Total Labor Sales/Labor
CA and FL COA Farm Sales and Labor Expenses ($bil)
CA  
2017 45.1 7 3.9 10.9 4.1
2012 42.6 5.9 3.4 9.3 4.6
2007 33.9 5 2.3 7.3 4.6
FL  
2017 7.4 1.4 0.45 1.85 4.0
2012 7.7 1.3 0.56 1.86 4.1
2007 7.8 1.2 0.55 1.75 4.5
Source: Census of Agriculture

Average weekly wages are higher in CA ag, but FL wages rose faster 2009-18

Average weekly wages ($) in CA and FL agriculture (11) and FLCs (115115)
  CA FL   CA FL  
  11 11 Difference 115115 115115 Difference
2009 469 414 55 323 276 47
2010 476 438 38 339 291 48
2011 492 455 37 352 292 60
2012 512 483 29 370 317 53
2013 533 498 35 388 336 52
2014 553 514 39 402 364 38
2015 582 555 27 432 400 32
2016 621 567 54 473 386 87
2017 640 589 51 480 406 74
2018 664 624 40 501 397 104
2009-18 42% 51% 55% 44%
Source: QCEW

CA farm workers earned $100-$200 more a week than FL farm workers in 2018

CA and FL weekly wage hierarchy in 2018 ($/week)
CA CA FL FL
VegDirectHire 814 Other Posthar 618
Dairy 772 Green&Nursery 604
Green&Nursery 733 F&NDirectHire 560
F&NDirectHire 659 VegsDirectHire 509
FLC 501 FLC 397

CA requires employers to report the employment of H-2A workers. H-2A certifications and crop employment rose together

FL does not require employers to report H-2A worker employment. As H-2A certifications increased, average UI-covered crop employment declined