Workers' Compensation

Larson’s on the Farm Labor Exemption in Workers’ Compensation

Sixteen states generally exclude farm or agricultural labor.[fn1] The particular conditions limiting agricultural coverage vary widely, sometimes excluding employees with less than a certain amount of earnings, sometimes exempting casual or seasonal labor, sometimes excluding family members, and so on. In addition, a few states cover agricultural workers in certain circumstances, most commonly when employed in hazardous work or in the use of machinery or power equipment.

As in the case of domestic service, sometimes, it is the exemption based on a minimum number of employees that stands between the small family farmer and coverage.

Of course, under most acts it is possible for the employer to elect compensation coverage voluntarily even if exempt, and in actual practice many of those who employ farm labor on a large scale have found it advisable to follow this course. One good reason is that once covered by voluntary acceptance, the employer becomes just as immune to tort suit as if it had been covered by compulsion. It has been held, however, that merely taking out an insurance policy will not be construed to be the equivalent of electing coverage. [fn2]

Many reasons, of varying degrees of validity, have been given to explain the agricultural exemption. The only one which seems to have much substance is the practical administrative difficulty that would be encountered by hundreds of thousands of small farmers in handling the necessary records, insurance, and accounting.[fn3] If this is the reason, it ought to follow that the exemption should be confined to small farmers, and not at the same time also relieve, from compensation responsibility, the great fruit, truck, sugarcane, dairy, and wheat farms which have much more in common with industry than with old-fashioned dirt farming. With the exceptions mentioned, based on minimum number of employees or the hazardous or mechanical nature of the employment, this all-important distinction has been largely disregarded in the statutes.

Less convincing is the argument that the farmer cannot, like the manufacturer, add the compensation cost to the price of the product and pass it on to the consumer. This might be true if an isolated state attempted compulsory coverage, but if all states extended coverage to farm labor, there would be no competitive disadvantage so far as the domestic market is concerned. As to the disparity between the domestic and world market, that problem already exists, and will not become essentially different because of a slight change in one domestic agricultural cost factor.

Least convincing of all is the assertion that farm laborers do not need this kind of protection. Whatever the compensation acts may say, agriculture is one of the most hazardous of all occupations. In 2004, for example, of 760,000 agricultural workers, 669 were fatally injured, while of 115,000,000 private non-farm employees, the number of fatalities was approximately 5,100.[fn4] Thus, as a whole, farm workers are twenty times as likely to be killed in the course of their employment than other workers.

It is important to ask what valid reason lies behind the exemption in order to have some guide in construing the notoriously troublesome terms "farm" and "agriculture." If, as is here suggested, that reason is one of administrative difficulty, one might expect to find that where the difficulty does not exist, due to the virtual industrialization of agricultural activity, close questions of definition will be resolved in the direction of compensation coverage.


1. See Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

2. Riley v. Taylor Orchards, 226 Ga. App. 394, 486 S.E.2d 617 (1997); Roe v. Roe, 259 Iowa 1229, 146 N.W.2d 236 (1967); Eaton v. Joe N. Miles & Sons, 238 Miss. 605, 119 So. 2d 359 (1960).

3. Haney v. North Dakota Workers Comp. Bureau, 518 N.W.2d 195 (N.D. 1994). But cf. Macias v. Department of Labor & Indus., 100 Wn.2d 263, 668 P.2d 1278 (1983).

4. See;; and

© Copyright 2013 LexisNexis. All rights reserved. This article was excerpted from Larson’s Workers’ Compensation Law, Ch. 75, Farm Labor.











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