Farm Internships. (Information from Chrys Ostrander)
SB 5123 was introduced in the 2013 Washington Legislature to set up a pilot program to allow small farms in sixteen WA counties to take on interns, paid or unpaid, who would perform farm work, benefit from a structured educational program administered by the farmer and receive Workers’ Compensation coverage.
The small farm economy in Washington is experiencing growth and with that comes a higher demand for trained farmworkers, many of whom will go on to become farm managers and farm owners. The internship pilot program that would be established by SB 5123 would improve on-the-job training for beginning farmers and farmworkers by requiring that the farms provide an educational component for farm interns. The educational component requirement is relatively simple for the small farm to comply with. The bill proposes that each participating small farm “provides a curriculum of learning modules and supervised participation in farm work activities designed to teach farm interns about farming practices and farm enterprises … [that is] is based on the bona fide curriculum of an educational or vocational institution; and … is reasonably designed to provide the intern with vocational knowledge and skills about farming practices and enterprises.” Such curricula are readily available on-line and can be modified by each farm to fit its circumstances. The bill calls for farm organizations and agencies such as WSU Extension, Tilth Producers of Washington, the Farm Bureau and others to offer assistance to participating small farms in fulfilling this and other aspects of their farm internship offerings.
The bill is similar to a pilot program that had been in existence in Skagit and San Juan counties during 2010 and 2011 but has since expired. The new version would revive the pilot program and extend it to King, Whatcom, Kitsap, Pierce, Jefferson, Spokane, Yakima, Chelan, Grant, Island, Snohomish, Kittitas, Lincoln, and Thurston counties. An attempt was made in the 2012 legislative session to extend the pilot program to these counties and received strong support in the legislature but died in committee.
An official assessment of the first pilot project was submitted to the legislature in 2011. Although participation in the program was low (six farms participating, nine interns enrolled), the report concluded “Both the farms and interns are reporting high levels of satisfaction with this project. Their desire is to continue providing internships that are “sanctioned” instead of questionably legal [“flying under the radar”]. The farms and interns especially value the availability of worker’s compensation for interns available through the FIP project. Farmers have reported that the quantity and quality of the educational component of their internships has increased as a result of participating in the project. All of the enrolled farmers said that they would recommend the program to other farmers. Interns have reported high praise for the educational component of their internships.”
Traditionally, many small farms have relied on “informal employment” of interns or apprentices. Whether such arrangements are legal or not depends on the interpretation of unpaid internship criteria published by the WA Department of Labor & Industries (L& I) and are based on the U. S. Department of Labor Fair Labor Standards Act (http://www.lni.wa.gov/WorkplaceRights/files/UnpaidInternshipsFactSheet.pdf). As the number of jobs on small farms grows, the potential for a farm to run afoul of labor laws increases. A farm’s viability comes under threat if it becomes embroiled in costly and time-consuming compliance and enforcement disputes with L& I. A small farm lacks sustainability if it allows risky employment practices and unnecessary exposure to legal entanglements to weaken its “economic viability”, which is one of the pillars of “sustainable agriculture,” Another pillar of sustainable agriculture is “social responsibility.” One of the reasons that gave rise to a social responsibility aspect in sustainable agriculture was the long history of worker exploitation in agriculture. While it is true that many informal employment arrangements on small farms are on friendly terms, there doesn’t exist the protection that legal workers enjoy in terms of on-the-job injuries or financial security. An intern on a small farm is not allowed to remain an intern indefinitely; that not only violates the tenant that unpaid interns cannot displace wage-earning workers (L & I criteria), but it disrespects decades of hard-fought, worker-led struggles to impose minimum wage protections upon labor exploiters of the past. Minimum wage laws exist to protect the rights of workers to receive fair compensation.
Part of creating a revitalized, sustainable local food system, besides improving training for farmers and farmworkers, is increasing their security and stability by regularizing un-paid internships – a tradition that dates back ages. Senate Bill 5123 is an experimental step in that direction. Let’s urge the legislature to pass this bill so that we can assess its workability.