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Mills vetoes farm worker minimum wage hike

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(The Center Square) — Maine Gov. Janet Mills has vetoed a package of bills that would have raised the minimum wage for farm workers, saying the proposal would create a new layer of bureaucracy for the industry.

The proposals called for giving farm workers in the state the right to unionize to push for labor reforms and setting the minimum wage for farm laborers at $14.15 per hour, the same as the state’s minimum wage for non-tipped employees.

Mills said she was ” deeply disappointed” to veto the package of bills but said lawmakers left her with “no choice” after they added a last-minute provision to the bill allowing unions and other farm worker rights groups to bring legal action for unpaid wages on behalf of an agriculture employee.

“Against this background, I cannot subject our farmers to a complicated new set of labor laws that will require a lawyer just to understand,” the Democrat wrote in her veto message. “I do not believe Maine farmers should face the prospect of privately initiated lawsuits, which would almost certainly lead to losing more farms in the long run.”

Labor unions, Democratic lawmakers and social justice groups had pushed for the changes, arguing that Maine farm workers are being taken advantage of by their employers. They blasted Mills for rejecting the bills and said it would deprive farm workers of much-needed money and state protections.

Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, said Mill’s veto “sends a clear message to farmworkers that they are of second-class status and are not worthy of the same rights and protections other workers enjoy.”

“It is embarrassing and insulting to farm workers and every worker that the governor would veto this compromise bill, her own bill, to guarantee farm workers the most elementary protection of the state minimum wage,” he said in a statement.

The measure was strongly opposed by the Maine Farm Bureau Association and other industry groups who said the changes would force many small, family-owned farms to shift to larger businesses to meet union demands, hurting their competitiveness and driving up costs for consumers.

“Small family farms will no longer be independent businesses, but will be subsidiaries of large producers contracting out production processes or out of business completely,” Julie Ann Smith, the bureau’s executive director, said in recent testimony. “You do not have masses of agricultural workers clamoring for unionization. But you have farmers pleading with you not to destroy their livelihoods.”

Lawmakers could vote to override Mills’ objections when they reconvene in August, but the slim margin by which the package of bills was passed will make it difficult to garner the two-thirds majority needed to reverse the governor’s decision.

In 2022, lawmakers failed to muster enough votes to override Mills’ veto of a similar farm worker package that had called for closing loopholes in state and federal labor laws for farm workers, who are not covered by Maine’s minimum wage and overtime regulations.

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