When most people in the country concentrated on voting last week, the US Department of Labor issued some controversial new rules involving farm labor.
This rule applies specifically to workers like Celso Gonzalez. He said his home is in Hildago State, Mexico, where it is difficult to find a job due to the pandemic. If he does find a job, he may earn $7 a day.
Instead, he works in the field of North Carolina. Tobacco farmers and sweet potato farmers there arranged for him to obtain special H-2A visas for seasonal agricultural workers. More than 200,000 such workers came to the United States this year, and this number is still growing.
According to the law, workers like Gonzalez should not take jobs or lower wages from American workers. Therefore, the government conducted a survey of farm employers to understand the wages they are paying similar American workers, and then calculated the hourly wages of H-2A workers to avoid “adversely affecting American workers. In North Carolina, the fee is $12.67 per hour. It’s about one dollar less in Florida and two more dollars in California.
In recent years, due to the shortage of migrant workers, this rate has been faster than inflation. Some employers have been complaining about wage increases.
In recent weeks, the Trump administration has stepped in and made some changes to the plan.
First, it suddenly cancelled the farm wage survey used to calculate the minimum wage. Justin Flores, the vice chairman of the union, represents some H-2A workers who have an understanding of what is about to happen. He said: “My first thought is that the Trump administration is chasing the wages and financial status of our members.”
Then, last week, the US government announced a new regulation that would freeze the wages of H-2A workers at this year’s level for the next two years. According to the new regulations, starting from 2023, the wages of H-2A workers will be linked to the national worker wage index, which usually grows more slowly than farm workers’ wages.
The government estimates that this change will reduce the wages of farm workers by approximately $170 million a year.
Diana Tellefson Torres, executive director of the United Farm Workers Foundation, called the move “condemned.”
Teleefson Torres said: “The salary of farm workers should be higher, not lower, especially because they work under the conditions seen during the pandemic.” UFW also argued that it pays for foreign workers. Low wages will also hurt the wages of American farm workers.
Employer groups, including the U.S. Agricultural Bureau Federation, welcomed this change. Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president of AmericanHort’s industry organization representing gardeners and nurseries, said the new system may be more predictable. He said that the current system sometimes leads to sudden increases in wages, and there is an inherent upward bias. “Annual average [wage] He said, “This is to ensure the minimum wage. Its purpose is to ensure that wages continue to rise.”
Although wages have risen, employers have continued to hire more H-2A workers in recent years. In the past five years, the number of H-2A positions approved by the Department of Labor has almost doubled. Now they account for about 10% of all farm workers.
Reg Brugg says this is the result of a shortage of workers. Especially fruit and vegetable growers, there are not enough people in the United States to do this manual labor and skilled work.
He insisted that employers cannot pay higher wages to attract more domestic workers, because then they will not be able to compete with cheap imported food. “This is really a question, can we successfully farm here, or will we rely more and more on foreign entities to feed us?” he said.
Proponents of farm workers say this is an excessive fear. According to their calculations, if the wages of farm workers increase by 40%, an American family only needs to pay an extra $25 a year to buy fruits and vegetables for a whole year.
The next government can revoke this decision, but this process may take a year or more.