What work are migrant farmworkers doing in Maine, and where?
Until the last few years the largest harvest was the wild blueberry crop which is mostly in Washington and Hancock counties. More recently the Christmas wreath making industry in Washington County employs the largest number of migrant workers. Migrant workers are also involved in the apple harvest which takes place in southwestern Maine from Berwick to Madison and the broccoli harvest in Aroostook County. Forestry is another industry employing migrant workers in Maine, who do pre-commercial thinning and replanting in the North Maine woods.

From what countries are migrant farmworkers traveling to Maine?
This is specific to the crop. Apple harvest workers are from Jamaica, and broccoli harvest workers are from Mexico. Forestry workers are from Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. The Christmas wreath industry and blueberry harvests include workers from Haiti, Puerto Rico, Mexico and several Central American countries. After the blueberry harvest, many migrant workers will travel to New York or Pennsylvania for apples in the fall (or Florida for citrus) and then return to Maine for wreaths in the fall and early winter. Canadian First Nations people and Passamaquoddy tribal members from Maine also work the blueberry harvest, many with the Native-owned Passamaquoddy Wild Blueberry Company.  

What laws protect migrant farmworkers?
Migrant farmworkers in Maine are not protected by laws that protect other workers (such as the National Labor Relations Act). They have no protections regarding overtime pay, organizing or collectively bargaining. The Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Protection Act does provide some protections to migrant workers. It requires that they be provided with written information in their language at the time of recruitment and prohibits employers from providing false or misleading information, and unfit housing or transportation. The law also allows workers to sue for violations they have suffered and obtain actual or statutory damages, of which the maximum amount has not been increased since 1983.  

How are these laws enforced and what is PTLA’s role?
Traditionally, PTLA conducts outreach at the 60-75 housing sites for migrant workers in Maine each year. We conduct outreach in-person as much as possible (and in the evenings when workers are home) so we can talk to workers directly about PTLA’s services and answer their questions about their legal rights. We assist eligible migrant workers who request our assistance to negotiate or file litigation in order to enforce their rights.  

How has COVID-19 impacted Maine farmworkers?
Migrant Farmworkers, who have been considered essential workers during the pandemic, are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Virus outbreaks have already occurred among workers employed by three different blueberry employers. Additionally, it is yet to be determined if the federal government will deem Maine’s wreath-making season essential. If they do not, more than 1,000 migrant workers will lose seven or eight weeks of steady work.  
Pine Tree has had to shift our outreach efforts in light of the pandemic, with increased methods of reaching migrant workers via technology (we have a new WhatsApp number, widely used by workers), and posting COVID-19 specific client education materials and videos to our website. Several hundred print Harvest Calendars (in Spanish, Haitian and English) have been and continue to be distributed to migrant workers with information about their rights and COVID specific protections.

Why is this work so important?
Pine Tree’s longstanding commitment to this work is essential. There are organizations that help migrant workers with their material needs and immigration cases, but in terms of doing what can be done to ensure workers are treated fairly and justly by enforcing their rights under the law, there’s really no one else doing that work besides PTLA. Without PTLA this work simply wouldn’t be done.

Before Mike went to law school he worked full time for the United Farmworkers Union for three years and became very focused on the ways farmworkers suffer and are treated in the US. It was a natural progression for him to do this work after that. Mike has been advocating for migrant farmworkers as a legal aid attorney for 37 years.