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Farmworkers’ union sues feds over wage freeze

FRESNO, Calif. — The nation’s largest agricultural union is suing the Department of Labor for imposing a two-year wage freeze on farm laborers, who are already among the lowest paid workers in the United States.

The new rule published by the Department of Labor on Nov. 5 locks in at 2019 levels the minimum wage employers must pay foreign agricultural workers with H-2A visas, known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate. 

Beginning in 2023, the Labor Department will tie future wage increases to the the generic employment cost index instead of relying on the Farm Labor Survey, causing wages to rise at an even slower rate. 

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue welcomed the new rule in a press release, saying it “could not have come at a better time” for American farmers as agricultural labor shortages have led to unsustainable wage increases for farmworkers.

The Labor Department estimates that $1.6 billion in H-2A wages will be transferred from workers to employers over the next ten years.

In a federal lawsuit Monday, the United Farm Workers said the rule not only keeps wages artificially low for foreign guest workers but will also cause U.S. farmworkers’ wages to stagnate.

“As DOL recognizes, H-2A wages must reflect market rates to protect against wage stagnation or depression. The Final Rule disregards that principle. Instead, it purposefully causes farmworker wages to stagnate by imposing a two-year wage freeze, and it later applies adjustments that will produce lower wages, unrelated to market conditions,” the complaint states.

The union says the new Adverse Effect Wage Rate method will cause workers to be paid at least 4% less on average than under the current regulations.

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“California farmworkers will be paid almost $1 less per hour under the Final Rule compared to the current methodology, resulting in approximately $170 in lost wages per month,” the complaint states. “Oregon and Washington farmworkers would likewise be paid about $0.45 less per hour, resulting in approximately $77 in lost wages per month.”

The union said a two-year wage freeze cannot be justified, especially when the central purpose of the Adverse Effect Wage Rate is to protect U.S. farmworkers. They seek a court order barring the rule from taking effect on Dec. 21.

In an emailed statement, Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice and one of the attorneys in the lawsuit, called the rule “an utterly arbitrary and unlawful act that inflicts grave harm to some of the most vulnerable workers in the nation.”

The United Farm Workers’ lawsuit comes on the heels of its successful challenge to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s hasty decision to postpone the Farm Labor Survey this year, which a federal judge declared essential to setting a fair pay rate for farmworkers. 

The Department of Labor did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Monday.

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Michel Duarte/Cronkite Borderlands Initiative

Farmworkers pick lettuce in Yuma in this 2013 file photo. The Yuma area is routinely among the top regions in the U.S. for the number of H-2A visas issued for temporary immigrant workers.