For many people, time is money; how about farm workers?
Before we rush off to work, let’s pause for a moment and think about how much some Americans earn per hour.
In a recent Labor Day column about the declining American work ethic, I wrote: “Today, in the agricultural hub of Central California, farmers tell me they’re paying $30 per hour to pick tomatoes and $40 per hour to pick melons. On the coast, they’re paying $60 per hour to pick avocados. They still can’t find enough workers.”
Who knew this could be so controversial? You wouldn’t believe the pushback I’ve gotten in the last few days. There were many skeptics who doubted that wages were that high in agriculture.
They are. I’ve interviewed farmers and farm workers, and both groups confirm it. Also, there have been articles about how tough it is for farmers and ranchers to find laborers, and how they’ve had to increase wages to avoid losing the ones they already have.
Still, labor advocates had such a low opinion of growers that they doubted farm workers were so well-paid. Others had such a low opinion of immigrants, who make up the vast majority of the work force in agriculture, that they doubted the laborers deserved such wages.
So how much is someone’s time worth? The short answer: Whatever someone else is willing to pay for it.
Fine. But that rule suddenly doesn’t apply to farm workers? Why not? What ugly vein of elitism did we just tap into?
Let’s start in the basement. The federal minimum wage is a mere $7.25 per hour. But 29 states and the District of Columbia have higher minimum wages.
In California, the state minimum wage will — on Jan. 1, 2019 — go up to $12 per hour. Individual cities can set higher amounts; on July 1, 2018, the minimum wage will go up to $14.25 per hour in Los Angeles and $15 per hour in San Francisco.
Yet the market makes its own rules. Fast-food restaurants in this state can’t find workers. Apparently, not a lot of young people want to flip burgers anymore. Employers are now offering $13-$16 per hour.
It’s our own fault. We could have seen this coming. Americans have devalued work over the years to the point where many young people now consider it a waste of time.
At construction firms, dairy farms and landscape companies, the workforce is getting older. And when those elderly workers retire, not many young people are lining up to take their place.
What intrigues me most are those Americans who demand a pretty penny for their time. Not experience or expertise. Just time.
Do you have any idea what babysitters charge these days? A few years ago, my wife and I would get quoted $12 to $15 per hour — or more if the babysitter had to watch more than one child.
Not long ago, we bought meals from a woman who did a brisk business cooking food for working families. A salmon dinner for four might cost $60. She charged not just for the food and cooking skill — but for her time as well.
That’s key. Americans value their time immensely, and they expect you to value it, too.
About 10 years ago, here in Southern California, I needed a fence stained. A handyman, who happened to be a naturalized U.S. citizen from Europe, offered to do it — for $75 per hour.
Need your car repaired? Take it to the dealer, and you’ll pay at least $95 per hour in labor costs.
The other day, I called a plumber to unclog a drain. It took him about 25 minutes to get his equipment in place, and five minutes to pop the drain. Those 30 minutes cost me $125.
Of course, I have lawyer friends who charge their clients as much as $400 or $500 per hour for their time.
And as someone who has been speaking professionally for 25 years, what do you think some people earn on the lecture circuit for an hour at a podium? It can often be in the tens of thousands of dollars.
All good. We believe that pro athletes, Hollywood stars and tech company CEOs should be able to earn as much as possible, because we think their time and talents are worth what the market allows.
But not farm workers. There, the rules are different? Why? Because we think this isn’t skilled work, that anyone can do it?
That is a quaint perspective most often found in people whose only exposure to fruits and vegetables is at a farmer’s market.
Prove me wrong. Every farmer I’ve ever interviewed has the same message for American workers: “Step right up. We’re hiring.”
Not everybody at once. Take your time.