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Trump-era farmworkers wage freeze gutted by federal judge

The judge found the freeze violated a duty to protect workers from 'adverse effects to their wages and working conditions'

Handing summary judgment to the nation’s largest farmworkers union Monday, a federal judge ruled a federal wage freeze for migrant farm laborers instituted by the Trump administration was unlawful.

In November 2020, the Department of Labor issued a rule freezing the minimum wage for H-2A visa-holding agricultural workers. The rule allowed farmers to maintain wages at the 2019 level rather than adjusting annually with the farm labor market, which previously was calculated by Farm Labor Surveys — something the Trump administration threw out the month prior with no ready replacement.

The Farm Labor Surveys provided critical aid to the Department of Labor in determining wages for roughly 92% of U.S. immigrant agricultural workers. The Trump administration argued the move would have saved farmers $167 million in labor costs annually.

The United Farm Workers union then sued the Department of Labor, which the Trump administration called untimely. U.S. District Judge Dale Drozd disagreed, finding the government had created a pressing timeline for the union by tossing the Farm Labor Survey. After an over 90-minute hearing, Drozd blocked the rule in December 2020, keeping in place the wage calculations via the Farm Labor Survey until the lawsuit concluded and finding the department did not provide reasonable justification for the wage freeze or sufficiently analyze if wage idling would impact U.S. agricultural workers. 

On the predicted $1.6 billion that agricultural workers could have lost over two years, Drozd wrote at the time: “The number is so staggering it’s hard to imagine there’s not an adverse effect.”

H-2A farmworkers are already among the lowest-paid laborers in the United States. Under the federal rule, farmworkers in Oregon and Washington state would have earned $77.40 less each month while California laborers would have seen a pay cut of $0.81 per hour. 

“Many of plaintiffs’ members, and other farmworkers across the United States, already struggle to pay for necessities such as shelter and medical care, and many farmworkers struggle with food insecurity and must rely on emergency food programs,” Drozd wrote at the time. 

On Monday, Drozd handed the union a victory on summary judgment, ruling the wage freeze violates the Immigration and Nationality Act, “by failing to protect United States workers against adverse effects to their wages and working conditions.” 

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Drozd also called out the Department of Labor for inadequately providing reason and analysis of the economic effects of their 2020 ruling. He also found the rule violated the Administrative Procedure Act’s notice-and-comment requirement.

He also declined a request by the Biden administration — which did not object to the rationale for Drozd’s previous injunction — to stay the case while a new rule was hammered out.

“Plaintiffs could potentially suffer harm from the holding of this case in abeyance. On the other hand, the court can identify no risk of harm at all to defendants from an order vacating the 2020 rule and closing this case,” Drozd wrote in a 13-page judgment. “Lastly, the court can conceive of no better way to preserve judicial resources than to bring this case to a
conclusion.”

Attorney for United Farm Workers, Mark Selwyn, and the Department of Labor did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday morning.

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Kirsten Strough/U.S. Department of Agriculture

Migrant workers weed a field of peppers on Rick and Robyn Purdum's farm in Fruitland, Idaho.