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July 2021, Volume 27, Number 3

Ag Employment Down, Wages Up

Covid accelerated three changes in farm labor. First is the shift from direct to indirect employment in crop agriculture. There were 1.7 directly hired crop workers for each worker brought to farms by a crop support employer in 2020, but the ratio is falling as the FLC share of crop employment increases.

Second is the jump in weekly wages between 2019 and 2020 in low-wage sectors such as FLCs, where wages rose fastest. Third is more agricultural employers or establishments. Average employment per establishment was 11 for crop farms in 2010 and 2020, but the average for animal farms rose from eight to 10 and for FLCs from 54 to 60.

USDA’s Farm Labor Survey found that the employment of directly hired workers fell 11 percent between April 2020 and April 2021.

The FLS includes only workers who are hired directly by farm operators, which means that workers who are brought to farms by nonfarm employers such as farm labor contractors and farm management firms are excluded. Second, the FLS sample is relatively small, which can produce large fluctuations from year to year. For example, employment in OR and WA rose from 47,000 in April 2019 to 58,000 in April 2020 before falling to 47,000 in April 2021.

Hourly farm wages rose faster between April 2020 and April 2021 than between April 2019 and April 2020. After rising three percent between 2019 and 2020, the gross hourly wages of US field workers rose seven percent to $15.19 in April 2021. The April 2019-20 and April 2020-21 wage changes were six and 11 percent in California, which took field worker wages to $17.25 in April 2021.

The FLS highlights the increase of farm earnings in California. In April 2010, the average hourly earnings of US, California and Oregon-Washington field workers was $10 an hour. By April 2021, California field worker earnings were $2 more than US field worker earnings and $1.35 an hour more than Oregon-Washington hourly earnings.

The Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages provides a more comprehensive look at farm employment and wages. The employment data are the average employment of workers who were on the payroll for the period that includes the 12th of the month, and the weekly wages are what a full-time worker would earn.

The QCEW data are from the unemployment insurance system, and UI coverage varies by state. Federal law requires all farm employers who employ at least 10 workers on each of 20 days in 20 different weeks during the current or preceding calendar year, or those who paid cash remuneration of $20,000 or more in any quarter during the current or preceding calendar year, to enroll in their state’s UI system and report employment and earnings.

Some states including California and Washington require all farm employers to enroll and report the employment and earnings of their workers, including H-2A guest workers, while other states such as Florida do not, so QCEW data cover a variable share of farm employment across states. The QCEW estimated that wage and salary employment in US agriculture averaged 1.7 million in 2017, including 76 percent or 1.3 million that was reported by employers to state UI systems.

Average covered agricultural employment (NAICS 11) rose eight percent between 2010 and 2020 to over 1.2 million, but fell by almost two percent between 2019 and 2020. Agricultural employment rose by an average 20,000 a year between 2010 and 2015, but by only 1,600 a year between 2015 and 2020, including the decrease of 22,000 between 2019 and 2020. FLC average employment fell by five percent or 10,000 between 2019 and 2020 to 172,000.

Animal agriculture was the exception, adding over 1,000 jobs between 2019 and 2020.

The average weekly wages of workers employed in agriculture rose 49 percent between 2010 and 2020, from $512 to $765. Employees of FLCs have the lowest weekly wages, but their wages rose fastest between 2010 and 2020, up 75 percent over the decade from $331 to $579 a week.

Weekly wage growth in all agricultural subsectors rose faster between 2015 and 2020 than between 2010 and 2015, and weekly wage increases between 2019 and 2020 were especially noticeable for FLC employees, up 10 percent, and crop workers, up seven percent.

Workers in animal agriculture had the highest weekly wages in 2020 of $815, but they experienced the slowest growth in weekly wages between 2019 and 2020, up less five percent. FLC employees had the lowest weekly wages of $580, but had the fastest wage growth, up 10 percent between 2019 and 2020.

The QCEW data suggest that the Covid pandemic reduced employment in crop agriculture, and that the drop in employment was concentrated among FLCs.

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