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What is Considered Farm Work?

Note that this page is designed to help farmers ensure that they are adhering to applicable laws, but it is not a legal document and is not exhaustive.

Farm work is treated differently than other work in federal and state wage and hour laws. Those performing farm work – as strictly defined in federal and state law – are exempt from overtime, and in Massachusetts those doing this work are also subject to a lower agricultural minimum wage. Most farm employers take advantage of one or more of these exemptions – but there’s a catch: it’s often hard to tease apart what is and what isn’t included in the definition of farm work.

Both federal and state laws define farm work in a manner that leaves ample room for interpretation by different enforcement officials and courts. If farm employers choose not to pay their employees overtime or minimum wage, they must assume responsibility for ensuring that these employees are only doing work that is legally considered to be farm work. Employers assume legal risk when these employees perform job duties that are in legal gray areas with regard to their categorization as farm work.

The federal definition of farm work

For purposes of its overtime exemption provision, the federal Department of Labor defines farm work as including “those employed solely in agriculture,” such as field workers, tractor operators, loaders and drivers, and farm office personnel. A worker must be paid overtime during any week(s) in which s/he performs non-exempt work. Examples of types of work often performed on farms that generally are NOT exempt from overtime under federal law include:

  • Working in agritourism (e.g. on-farm festivals, hay rides, corn mazes)
  • Handling produce grown off-farm (e.g. stocking raspberries grown by a neighbor)
  • Processing farm products, especially when off-farm ingredients are added or composition is altered.
  • Tending bought-in nursery plants
  • Installing farm-grown landscaping plants for customers

The Massachusetts definition of farm work

For purposes of its minimum wage and overtime exemption provisions, Massachusetts defines farm work as “labor on a farm and the growing and harvesting of agricultural, floricultural, and horticultural commodities.” A recent court decision has indicated that this language is to be interpreted significantly more strictly than the language in the federal overtime exemption. While federal law exempts “secondary agricultural” activities that are “incidental” to farming (such as many post-harvest tasks) from overtime, such activities do no appear to be exempt from overtime or minimum wage under Massachusetts law (note that the state Department of Labor Standards has not yet issued official regulatory guidance that reflects and clarifies this ruling, and will hold hearings on this issue in February 2020).

Examples of types of work often performed on farms that generally are NOT exempt from overtime and minimum wage under Massachusetts law include:

  • Retail work
  • Office work
  • Work performed off of the farm premises
  • Post-harvest work including:
    • Cleaning, inspecting, sorting, and weighing produce
    • Packing produce in bags or boxes
    • General cleaning work like sweeping

As mentioned above, the state Department of Labor Standards has not yet issued official regulatory guidance that reflects and clarifies the court ruling indicating that post-harvest work and other secondary agricultural tasks are subject to overtime. In particular, it is still unclear which kinds of tasks performed on livestock farms would be considered “secondary agricultural” tasks and thus subject to overtime or minimum wage. It is also unclear where the line would be drawn on crop farms between harvesting work (which is exempt from overtime) and post-harvest work (which is subject to overtime), especially in the case of work that is performed in the field to prepare produce for market.

The information in this tipsheet was last updated January 2020. This material is based upon work supported by USDA/NIFA under Award Number 2012-49200-20031. Funding was also provided by individual contributors and Local Hero members.t

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