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Farm Worker Wages and Employment: COA and QCEW

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May 13, 2021

The two major sources of data on farm worker employment and wages are the Census of Agriculture and the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. The COA reported that expenses for farm labor were $39 billion in 2017, while the QCEW reported that wages paid to crop and livestock farm workers (NAICS 111, 112, 1151, and 1152) were $40 billion.

Census of Agriculture. The COA obtains data from farm operators on their expenses for workers whom they hire directly and for workers brought to their farms by contractors. Employer labor expenses include wages as well as payroll taxes and the cost of any employer-provided benefits such as health insurance and housing, while contract labor expenses include wages, payroll taxes, work-related benefits, and other contractor expenses and profits.

Some 513,100 US farms had $31.6 billion in expenses for directly hired workers in 2017, and 195,800 US farms (often the same farms) reported $7.6 billion in contract labor expenses.

COA farm labor expenses are concentrated in three inter-related ways, by geography, commodity, and size of farm. California accounts for almost 28 percent of COA labor expenses, and the top five states of CA, WA, TX, FL and OR account for 47 percent of the US total. The next five states of WI, NC, MI, IA, and MN account for 13 percent of US farm labor expenses, and the next five states of PA, NY, ID, IL, and NE account for 11 percent, so that 15 states account for 71 percent of COA labor expenses.

COA labor expenses are also concentrated by commodity. COA Table 75 shows that $23 billion or 73 percent of the $31.6 billion in direct-hire labor expenses were paid by crop farms in 2017, and $6.4 billion or 84 percent of the $7.6 billion in contract labor expenses were paid by crop farms. Fruits and nuts (NAICS 1113), nurseries (1114), and vegetables and melons (1112) accounted for $9 billion, $5.4 billion, and $4.7 billion, respectively, of combined direct hire and contract labor expenses, for a total of $19 billion or half of US farm labor expenses.

FVH farms paid half of COA farm labor expenses in 2017

FVH Farms Paid Half of COA Farm Labor Expenses in 2017
  Total Grains Vegetables & Fruits & Nuts Nurseries  
Direct 11 1111 1112 1113 1114 FVH FVH Share
Farms 513,137 119,412 16,269 38,510 21,317 76,096 15%
Expenses ($ millions) 31,636 4,195 3,185 5,832 4,883 13,900 44%
Farms share 100% 23% 3% 8% 4% 15%  
Expenses Share 100% 13% 10% 18% 15% 44%  
 
Contract
Farms 195,754 25,047 5,805 29,918 6,425 42,148 22%
Expenses ($ millions) 7,595 383 1,499 3,176 949 5,169 68%
Farms share 100% 13% 3% 15% 3% 22%  
Expenses Share 100% 5% 20% 42% 7% 68%  
 
Total
Farms 708,891 144,459 22,074 68,428 27,742 118,244 17%
Expenses ($ millions) 39,231 4,578 4,684 9,008 5,377 19,069 49%
Farms share 100% 20% 3% 10% 4% 17%  
Expenses Share 100% 12% 12% 23% 14% 49%  
Ratio 1 1.7 0.3 0.4 0.3 0.3  
COA 2017 Table 75

Most COA labor expenses are paid by large farm employers: The 10,000 farms that had direct-hire labor expenses of $500,000 or more in 2017, two percent of all farms with labor expenses, accounted for 52 percent of all labor expenses. Contract labor expenses were more concentrated; the 10,000 farms with the most contract labor expenses incurred 72 percent of the total.

The COA is considered the most reliable source of data on farm labor expenses, and data are available by state and county. However, the labor expense data include employer payroll taxes and the cost of benefits to employees, and the contract labor expenses include taxes and benefit costs as well as contractor profits, so labor expenses may be 20 percent to 30 percent higher than employee pre-tax pay. COA labor expenses may also include payments to family members.

Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. The QCEW collects employment and earnings data from employers who pay unemployment insurance taxes. The federal government sets minimum standards for UI programs, which are administered by states.

Employers report all employees who are on the payroll for the period that includes the 12th of the month. Most farm workers are paid weekly, which means that the average employment reported in the QCEW is employment during the second week of the month, so that employees who work only during the first, third, or fourth weeks of the month are not included in average employment. There are no data on the average hours of work performed during the survey week.

Wages are the gross earnings of all employees during the quarter, including those who were not on the payroll during the period that includes the 12th of the month. QCEW wages, in contrast to the COA, do not include employer-paid payroll taxes, workers compensation premiums, and health insurance and other employer benefit contributions.

The QCEW reported that crop employers (NAICS 111) paid $18.2 billion in wages in 2017 and crop support employers (1151) paid $10.5 billion, for a total $28.7 billion. Livestock (112) employers paid $9.9 billion, and livestock support employers paid $1.1 billion, for a total of $11 billion.

California accounted for 44 percent of QCEW crop wages paid in 2017, followed by WA with nine percent, TX with eight percent, and FL with six percent. California accounted for 11 percent of QCEW livestock wages paid in 2017, followed by TX with nine percent, WI with six percent, and IA, MN, and NY with four percent each. The top four crop states accounted for 65 percent of QCEW crop wages paid, and the top six livestock states accounted for 38 percent of QCEW livestock wages paid, indicating that crop wages are far more concentrated in a few states than livestock wages.

QCEW employment indicates the number and distribution of UI-covered farm workers across states. CA accounted for 43 percent of average UI-covered crop employment in 2017, followed by WA with 10 percent, FL with seven percent, and OR and TX with four percent each, so that the top five states accounted for 68 percent of UI-covered crop employment. The top five states for UI-covered livestock employment were CA with 11 percent, TX with nine percent, WI with six percent, and NY and IA, four percent each.

California accounted for 44% of UI-covered crop employment in 2017; the top 5 states accounted for 68%

California accounted for 11% of UI-covered livestock employment in 2017; the top 5 states accounted for 35%

QCEW employment data can be used to estimate the number and distribution of farm workers by making assumptions about the average duration of farm employment. For example, if crop workers are employed an average of 1,040 hours or half of the year (QCEW assumes 52-40 hour weeks or a 2,080 work year), then average employment of 100 crop workers would represent 200 unique workers. If livestock workers are employed an average three-fourths of the year, then average employment of 100 livestock workers would represent 133 unique workers.

Combining 2017 QCEW employment and these average hours worked assumptions generates an estimate of 2.2 million unique farm workers, including 1.8 million crop and 389,000 livestock workers. Three states had over 100,000 farm workers: CA had 814,000, WA 193,000, and FL 131,000. The chart below shows the states with 20,000 (MO) to 98,000 (TX) unique farm workers.

19 states had 20,000 to 98,000 unique farm workers in 2017 based on QCEW data and assumptions about hours worked

These data are illustrative rather than definitive. UI systems and seasonality vary across states, so that there should be separate multipliers for each state. For example, with fewer workers covered by UI and shorter seasons in southeastern states, UI average employment does not reflect non-covered and short-season workers. If employment is raised to account for workers who are not covered, and the assumption that workers average 1,040 hours of farm work is reduced, the number of unique farm workers increases.

State and US estimates of crop, livestock, and all farm workers based on QCEW average employment and hours worked (including support employment)

State and US estimates of crop, livestock, and all farm workers based on QCEW average employment and hours worked (including support employment)
  Ave crop emp 1040 hours Ave live emp 1560 hours Total FWs
Alabama 4,239 8,478 2,689 3,585 12,063
Alaska  0 0 349 465 465
Arizona  20,519 41,038 4,848 6,464 47,502
Arkansas  5,606 11,212 3,955 5,273 16,485
California  385,747 771,494 31,640 42,187 813,681
Colorado  10,134 20,268 7,184 9,579 29,847
Connecticut  3,225 6,450 1,419 1,892 8,342
Delaware  941 1,882 508 677 2,559
Florida  60,611 121,222 7,463 9,951 131,173
Georgia  13,388 26,776 4,881 6,508 33,284
Hawaii 4,673 9,346 928 1,237 10,583
Idaho  11,855 23,710 10,853 14,471 38,181
Illinois  13,042 26,084 5,690 7,587 33,671
Indiana  7,701 15,402 7,249 9,665 25,067
Iowa  7,822 15,644 12,281 16,375 32,019
Kansas 4,807 9,614 7,137 9,516 19,130
Kentucky 2,448 4,896 5,647 7,529 12,425
Louisiana 5,227 10,454 957 1,276 11,730
Maine 2,570 5,140 1,018 1,357 6,497
Maryland 3,143 6,286 1,827 2,436 8,722
Massachusetts 4,305 8,610 2,305 3,073 11,683
Michigan 19,465 38,930 9,705 12,940 51,870
Minnesota 8,923 17,846 11,967 15,956 33,802
Mississippi 4,986 9,972 3,351 4,468 14,440
Missouri 6,606 13,212 5,403 7,204 20,416
Montana 1,558 3,116 2,910 3,880 6,996
Nebraska 6,691 13,382 7,492 9,989 23,371
Nevada 2,430 4,860 1,187 1,583 6,443
New Hampshire 954 1,908 557 743 2,651
New Jersey 10,072 20,144 1,286 1,715 21,859
New Mexico 5,543 11,086 5,517 7,356 18,442
New York 13,293 26,586 12,354 16,472 43,058
North Carolina 14,885 29,770 9,589 12,785 42,555
North Dakota 3,809 7,618 724 965 8,583
Ohio 9,071 18,142 6,923 9,231 27,373
Oklahoma 3,227 6,454 7,207 9,609 16,063
Oregon 36,317 72,634 4,140 5,520 78,154
Pennsylvania 14,934 29,868 8,349 11,132 41,000
Rhode Island 555 1,110 183 244 1,354
South Carolina 5,233 10,466 1,920 2,560 13,026
South Dakota 2,054 4,108 3,574 4,765 8,873
Tennessee 4,559 9,118 1,748 2,331 11,449
Texas 30,818 61,636 27,053 36,071 97,707
Utah 2,570 5,140 2,801 3,735 8,875
Vermont 979 1,958 2,059 2,745 4,703
Virginia 6,421 12,842 4,506 6,008 18,850
Washington 91,349 182,698 7,530 10,040 192,738
West Virginia 536 1,072 263 351 1,423
Wisconsin 8,367 16,734 19,047 25,396 42,130
Wyoming 758 1,516 1,909 2,545 4,061
US total 888,966 1,777,932 292,082 389,443 2,167,375

COA. There were four Censuses of Agriculture conducted in the 21st century, in 2002, 2007, 2012, and 2017. Between 2002 and 2017, farm sales almost doubled, from $200 billion to $388 billion, while the labor expenses of farmers and contract labor expenses rose 77 percent, from $22 billion to $39 billion. Labor expenses were about 10 percent of farm sales in 2017.

Direct-hire labor expenses rose 70 percent between 2002 and 2017, while contract labor expenses rose 117 percent. Both direct and contract labor expenses rose fastest between 2007 and 2012, up 23 and 44 percent, and both rose slowest between 2012 and 2017, when each was up 17 percent.

One explanation this faster and then slower growth in labor expenses is that 2007 marked the end of five years of rising unauthorized migration before the 2008-09 recession. The slowdown in unauthorized migration after 2008-09 put upward pressure on farm wages that was reflected in the 2012 COA, while the 2017 COA was conducted after states began to increase minimum wages.

COA labor expenses rose fastest between 2007 and 2012

COA Labor Expenses 2002-17, ($ bils)
  Labor expenses Contract Total Labor
2002 18.6 3.5 22.1
2007 21.9 4.5 26.4
2012 27 6.5 33.5
2017 31.6 7.6 39.2
2002-17 70% 117% 77%
2002-07 18% 29% 19%
2007-12 23% 44% 27%
2012-17 17% 17% 17%
Sources: Tables 1 and 4, COA

The table below ranks states by their share of COA labor expenses in 2017. Farm labor expenses in the 2017 COA were $39 billion, so each one percent share is $390 million.

The share of COA labor expenses rose most in WA, and fell most in FL, between 2002 and 2017

Share of COA farm labor expenses by state
  2002 07 2012 2017 2017-02 Change
California  27.2% 27.6% 27.7% 27.6% 0.4%
Washington 4.8% 4.6% 5.5% 6.2% 1.4%
Texas 5.2% 5.2% 5.7% 5.2% 0.0%
Florida  7.2% 6.6% 5.5% 4.7% -2.5%
Oregon 3.1% 3.4% 2.9% 3.0% -0.1%
Wisconsin 2.4% 3.1% 2.8% 2.9% 0.4%
North Carolina 2.7% 2.8% 2.7% 2.8% 0.2%
Michigan 2.3% 2.5% 2.4% 2.7% 0.4%
Iowa  2.0% 2.1% 2.3% 2.5% 0.5%
Minnesota 2.2% 2.1% 2.2% 2.3% 0.1%
Pennsylvania 2.2% 2.5% 2.2% 2.3% 0.1%
New York 2.1% 2.3% 2.3% 2.2% 0.1%
Idaho  1.8% 2.1% 2.0% 2.1% 0.2%
Illinois  2.0% 1.9% 1.9% 2.0% 0.0%
Nebraska 1.8% 1.7% 1.9% 2.0% 0.2%
Kansas 1.7% 1.7% 1.8% 1.9% 0.2%
Ohio 1.8% 1.7% 1.7% 1.8% 0.0%
Georgia  1.8% 1.6% 1.6% 1.7% -0.1%
Arizona  2.0% 1.7% 1.7% 1.7% -0.3%
Colorado  1.8% 1.6% 1.6% 1.6% -0.2%
Missouri 1.5% 1.4% 1.4% 1.6% 0.1%
Indiana  1.5% 1.3% 1.5% 1.5% 0.0%
Kentucky 1.6% 1.4% 1.4% 1.3% -0.3%
Virginia 1.2% 1.2% 1.2% 1.2% 0.0%
Arkansas  1.3% 1.2% 1.2% 1.2% -0.1%
Oklahoma 1.3% 1.2% 1.1% 1.0% -0.2%
South Dakota 0.7% 0.7% 0.9% 1.0% 0.3%
North Dakota 0.7% 0.7% 0.9% 0.9% 0.3%
Tennessee 0.9% 1.0% 0.9% 0.9% 0.0%
New Jersey 0.9% 1.0% 0.9% 0.9% -0.1%
Mississippi 0.9% 0.9% 0.9% 0.9% -0.1%
New Mexico 1.0% 0.9% 0.9% 0.8% -0.1%
Louisiana 0.9% 0.8% 0.9% 0.8% -0.1%
Alabama 0.9% 0.9% 0.8% 0.8% -0.1%
Montana 0.7% 0.7% 0.8% 0.8% 0.0%
Maryland 0.7% 0.6% 0.6% 0.7% 0.0%
South Carolina 0.8% 0.7% 0.8% 0.7% -0.2%
Hawaii 0.8% 0.7% 0.8% 0.7% -0.2%
Utah 0.6% 0.6% 0.6% 0.6% 0.0%
Connecticut  0.6% 0.6% 0.5% 0.5% -0.1%
Massachusetts 0.5% 0.5% 0.6% 0.4% -0.1%
Wyoming 0.4% 0.4% 0.4% 0.4% 0.0%
Maine 0.4% 0.4% 0.4% 0.4% 0.0%
Vermont 0.3% 0.3% 0.3% 0.3% 0.0%
Nevada 0.3% 0.3% 0.3% 0.2% 0.0%
Delaware  0.2% 0.2% 0.2% 0.2% 0.0%
West Virginia 0.2% 0.1% 0.2% 0.1% 0.0%
New Hampshire 0.2% 0.1% 0.2% 0.1% 0.0%
Alaska  0.1% 0.1% 0.1% 0.1% 0.0%
Rhode Island 0.1% 0.1% 0.1% 0.0% 0.0%
US 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 100.0%  

The share of US farm labor expenses accounted for by the top five states was 47 percent in the four COA years of 2002, 2007, 2012, and 2017, with Florida’s share falling and Washington’s rising over these years.

The share of US labor expenses in the next five states rose slightly, from less than 12 percent to more than 13 percent. Each of the next five states accounted for 2 percent to 3 percent of US labor expenses, and IA and MI raised their shares, especially between 2012 and 2017.

The next five states accounted for 10 percent of US labor expenses, with ID standing out as a state whose share rose significantly between 2002 and 2017. The next five states accounted for 9 percent of US labor expenses, with the share of labor expenses in KS rising and the share in AZ and CO falling. The next five states accounted for 7 percent of labor expenses, with KY’s share falling.

The share of US farm labor expenses fell slightly for the top 5 states and rose for the next 5 states between 2002 and 2017


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