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Wage and Hour Laws

The rules and regulations surrounding wages, overtime, and breaks vary from state to state, and often state law is not aligned with federal law. Note that this guide is designed to help farmers ensure that they are adhering to applicable laws, but it is not a legal document and is not exhaustive.

Minimum Wage

Massachusetts minimum wage is $13.50 per hour through the end of 2021 (and is slated increase annually through 2023*); the agricultural minimum wage in Massachusetts is currently $8 per hour; and the federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour. When state and federal law don’t agree, the law that is more protective of the worker applies, so farm workers in this state generally must be paid either the MA minimum wage or the MA agricultural minimum wage (if they are exempt from the MA minimum wage). Both of these minimum wages are higher than federal minimum wage at present. The limited exemptions to state and federal minimum wage that apply to certain kinds of farm work are as follows:

  • Massachusetts minimum wage exemption for agricultural work – In Massachusetts, certain types of farm work are exempt from the regular MA minimum wage. Specifically, work that is performed on the farm premises in the “growing and harvesting of agricultural, floricultural, and horticultural commodities,” is subject to a reduced agricultural minimum wage of $8 per hour. This does not, however, include activities like office work, agritourism, retail work, or any work that is off of the farm premises. According to a recent court ruling, it also does not include post-harvest activities like sorting, cleaning, packaging, and shipping. Hours spent doing these activities would instead be subject to the regular MA minimum wage. Click here for more information on what is considered farm work for purposes of the agricultural minimum wage. In addition, workers under the age of 18 who solely do production and harvest work on the farm may be paid a youth minimum wage (not less than $4.25 per hour) for the first 90 consecutive days after their initial employment at the farm.
  • Federal minimum wage exemption for agricultural work – Note that this federal exemption to minimum wage has less impact on farms at present because MA minimum wage and agricultural minimum wage are both higher than federal minimum wage. However, this exemption is still important in light of the fact that federal minimum wage may be raised. Small farms that clocked fewer than 500 “man days” in every calendar quarter of the previous year are exempt from federal minimum wage (but not Massachusetts minimum wage or Massachusetts agricultural minimum wage).  A “man day” is any day where an employee who is not in the immediate family of the farm owner reports to work for at least one hour. For example, a farm with six workers each working six days per week over the course of the busiest quarter would count as 36 “man days” per week and would fall just under the 500 “man day” threshold. For farms that exceed this threshold, just two specific categories of workers are exempt from federal (but not state) minimum wage: 1) immediate family (i.e. spouses, parents, children, or siblings) of the farm owner and 2) piecework hand harvesters who commute daily to work and who worked on a farm for less than thirteen weeks in the previous year.
  • Minimum wage exemption for non-profit organizations – People doing work on non-profit farms may be exempt from both federal and state minimum wage if they are considered “volunteers” or “interns.” A “volunteer” is someone who donates their services – usually on a part-time basis and without contemplation of pay – for religious, public service, or humanitarian objectives. To have a qualified “internship,” the institution offering the internship must be a charitable, educational, or religious institution, and the position should involve training similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, should be for the benefit of the intern, should not displace regular employees, and should give no immediate advantage to the employer. More information on the Massachusetts definition of “intern” is available in this opinion letter. Note that under Massachusetts law, for-profit farms can never legally have volunteers or interns working on their farm who are paid less than minimum wage (i.e. either $13.50* or $8 depending on job duties), except when the worker is doing a qualified internship through a charitable, educational, or religious institution.

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Overtime

Massachusetts and federal laws agree that most workers must be paid 1.5 times their regular wage rate for any hours worked in excess of 40 in a given week. However, certain kinds of farm work are exempt from overtime under both federal and state overtime laws. These exemptions are described below:

  • Federal overtime exemption for agricultural work – Federal law exempts agricultural employees from overtime during any week in which they solely perform work that is exempt. However, a farm employee must be paid time-and-a-half for all hours they work in excess of 40 during any week in which they perform any non-exempt work (even just one hour). Field work, tractor operation, loading produce, driving, and farm office work all generally qualify as overtime exempt under federal law when performed by an agricultural employee. However, any agritourism work, handling of goods from other farms, landscaping, or tending to bought-in plants are not exempt from overtime under federal law, nor is processing work in most cases, especially when the processing includes any off-farm ingredients or changes produce composition. Click here for more information on what is considered farm work for purposes of overtime exemptions.
  • State overtime exemption for agricultural work – According to a recent opinion letter interpreting state law**, the agricultural overtime exemption seemingly functions quite differently under state law than under federal law. This interpretation states that agricultural employees remain exempt from MA overtime unless they perform over 40 hours of non-exempt work in a week. According to a recent court ruling, however, many more kinds of tasks are non-overtime-exempt under state law than under federal law. Under MA law, overtime-exempt tasks are strictly limited to those that are performed on the farm premises that are part of the “growing and harvesting of agricultural, floricultural and horticultural commodities.” Thus, in addition to the federally non-exempt tasks listed above, retail work and work off of the farm premises are considered non-exempt according to state law, as are post-harvest activities like sorting, cleaning, packaging, and shipping. Click here for more information on what is considered farm work for purposes of overtime exemptions. Note that farms can apply for an exemption from MA (but not federal) overtime requirements if their business or a specified part of their business is seasonal in nature and is conducted for 120 days or less per year. To apply for such a seasonal business waiver, farms must complete and submit a seasonal business overtime application, available here.
  • Overtime exemptions for salaried employees – Paying employees on a salary basis does not mean that they are exempt from overtime. That said, a small subset of salaried farm workers may qualify as exempt from both federal and state overtime requirements if they are executive, administrative, or sales employees. In order to qualify for any of these exemptions, a worker must be performing specific duties, must be paid on a salary basis, and must be paid a minimum salary of at least $684*** per week to remain overtime exempt. A worker may qualify for the executive exemption if their primary duty is to manage a farm enterprise or subdivision of the enterprise, they direct the work of at least two employees in that enterprise, and have significant authority to hire and fire employees. A worker may qualify for the administrative exemption if their primary duty is office or non-manual work directly related to farm management or business operations, and the job requires them to exercise discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance. A worker may qualify for the sales exemption if their primary duty is making sales and they customarily and regularly engage in work away from their employer’s place of business.

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Breaks

State law requires that employees be given a continuous half-hour break for every six hours they work, during which time they must be permitted to leave the work site and may not be required to do any work. This break may be unpaid, and it is voluntary. However, if employees choose not to take a break they must be paid for all hours worked. Employees must also be paid for any time they are required to be on site or on duty at your request, regardless of whether or not you have assigned them a task.

Work on Sundays and Holidays

Massachusetts “blue laws” impose certain restrictions on which businesses can operate on Sundays and holidays. Businesses generally are not permitted to operate on Columbus Day before 12pm, on Veterans Day before 1pm, or on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Day. For Sundays and for other holidays, blue law restrictions vary by business type.

Retail operations generally are allowed to operate on Sundays and other holidays (i.e. New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day after 12pm, and Veteran’s Day after 1pm), with the caveat that they cannot require employees to work or penalize an employee for refusing to work these days. Many non-retail businesses are not allowed to operate on Sundays and holidays – though most non-retail farm tasks can in fact be performed legally on these days. Non-retail tasks that can be performed include the “cultivation of land and the raising and harvesting of agricultural products and fruit,” “the making of butter and cheese,” and “the transport or processing of fresh meat, fresh poultry, fresh fish, fresh seafoods, fresh dairy products, fresh bakery products, fresh fruits or fresh vegetables, or ice, bees, or Irish moss, when circumstances require that such work be done on Sunday.”

Note that if a farm employs more than seven people over the course of a week (including the owner) and operates a retail business on Sundays or holidays, Massachusetts premium pay laws apply. Any employees on such a farm who do retail tasks on Sundays or holidays (i.e. New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day after 12pm, and Veteran’s Day after 1pm) are owed premium pay. In the case of New Year’s Day, Columbus Day, and Veteran’s Day, premium pay is 1.5 times the worker’s regularly hourly rate. In the case of Sundays and Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day, premium pay is 1.3 times the worker’s regular hourly rate in 2020 and will be phased out completely by 2023 (with the rate lowering to 1.2 times regular wages in 2021 and 1.1 times in 2022). Note that if a worker earns overtime, the amount paid in overtime can offset premium pay requirements for that week.

Youth Workers

All workers under 18 must get a work permit from their school district (by making a request to their superintendent). In addition, they must be directly supervised by an accessible adult after 8pm, and must have at least one day of rest per week. Under both federal and state law, minors are not allowed to perform certain types of hazardous work (with very limited exceptions for certain students in vocational agriculture programs). A list of such types of restricted work under federal law can be found here and under Massachusetts law can be found here.

For all workers under 18, there are restrictions on work hours. Workers who are 16 or 17 years old may work any time from 6am-11:30pm (or 10pm on school nights), a maximum of 48 hours per week and 9 hours per day. For workers under the age of 16, work during the school year can only be between 7am and 7pm, a maximum of 18 hours per week and 3 hours per day on school days or 8 hours/day on weekends; and work during the summer can only be between 7am and 9pm, a maximum of 40 hours per week and 8 hours per day.

Workers under the age of 14 have additional work restrictions. They must not work for more than 4 hours/day nor more than a total of 24 hours/week (unless related by blood or marriage to the farm owner/operator). Moreover, their employer must obtain written consent from their parents before hiring them (on top of the school work permit required for all minors). Workers under the age of 12 usually cannot be legally employed at all on farms (the one exception being on very small farms that are not covered by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act).

Pay and Deductions

  • Reporting pay – An employee must be paid for three hours of work at minimum wage if they are scheduled to work at least three hours, show up for work on time, and are not provided with the expected hours of work. This does not apply to farms that are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.
  • Travel time – Time spent traveling between home and work is not paid, but if employees are required to travel during a work day or for work, that time must be paid.
  • Pay period – Workers must be paid within six days of the end of a pay period. Hourly employees must be paid at least biweekly, and piecework employees must be paid at least weekly.
  • Termination pay – If an employee is fired or laid off, they must be paid in full on their last day of work. If an employee quits, they must be paid in full on the next regular pay day. Wages include earned vacation time.
  • Deductions – With very limited exceptions, payroll deductions that are not required by law (such as taxes) or that are not employee-authorized for their own benefit (such as health insurance) are not allowed in Massachusetts. For example, deductions for mandatory farm tools or clothing or for damage done by an employee are generally not allowed. Limited deductions may sometimes be allowed for providing housing and meals, but the allowable deductions can never exceed $35 per week for lodging and $42 per week for meals, and in many cases they must be lower. Moreover, housing must meet certain standards, and an employer can only take deductions if they are disclosed in writing to the employee, they are voluntary, and the employee accepts the deductions in writing.
  • Pay Equity – Massachusetts law prohibits employers from asking prospective employees about past wages and compensation histories at any point during the hiring process. The purpose of this law is to help remedy the pay gap between men and women.

* The Massachusetts regular minimum wage will increase to $14.25 as of January 1, 2022 and $15 as of January 1, 2023.

** Note that this opinion letter, while helpful in interpreting state law, has not yet been confirmed by Massachusetts court rulings.

*** The state threshold remains significantly lower, at $80 per week.

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This webpage was last updated January 2021 and is based upon work supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture under award 2015-49200-24225, 2018-70027-28588, and 2016-70017-25423 and by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service through grant 16FMPPMA0002. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the USDA.

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