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. This is risky when employees perform job duties that are in legal gray areas with regard to their categorization as farm work. Recent enforcement and court decisions at the federal and the state level have surprised farmers with their interpretations, and some farms have had to pay steep fines and back wages as a result.

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:

  1. Working in agritourism (e.g. on-farm festivals, hay rides, corn mazes)
  2. Handling produce grown off-farm (e.g. stocking raspberries grown by a neighbor)
  3. Processing farm products, especially when off-farm ingredients are added or composition is altered.
  4. Tending bought-in nursery plants
  5. 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.” In Massachusetts, a recent court decision has clarified that this language is, at least in the case of overtime, to be interpreted significantly more strictly than the language in the federal overtime exemption. While federal law exempts activities that are “incidental” to farming (such as many post-harvest tasks) from overtime, Massachusetts law currently DOES NOT exempt such activities from overtime. In addition to being subject to overtime in Massachusetts, such “incidental” activities would likely also be subject to the regular state minimum wage (as opposed to the agricultural minimum wage of $8/hour).*

Examples of types of work often performed on farms that generally are NOT exempt from overtime (and are likely also subject to the regular minimum wage) under Massachusetts law include:

  1. Cleaning, inspecting, sorting, and weighing produce (whether grown on or off the farm)
  2. Packing produce in bags or boxes
  3. Retail work
  4. Office work
  5. Work performed off of the farm premises

* Note that we are not yet aware of any legal decisions that have confirmed this interpretation as of yet.

The information in this tipsheet was last updated March 2019. 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.

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