Trump administration sued over decision that critics say would slash wages for more than 200,000 farm workers

Trump administration sued over decision that critics say would slash wages for more than 200,000 farm workers

October 14, 2020
  • The United Farm Workers union is suing the Trump administration over a decision it says will slash wages for agricultural guest workers and US citizens alike.
  • In September, the US Department of Agriculture said it would no longer conduct a wage survey of farm workers, data used to calculate the pay for over 200,000 farm workers on H-2A visas.
  • Without the survey, critics fear farm workers could be paid as little as $7.25 an hour in some states.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Organized labor is suing the Trump administration over a recent regulatory decision that worker advocates and policy experts believe is the first step in slashing wages for those employed in the agriculture industry.

In a complaint filed on Tuesday, first reported by Business Insider, the United Farm Workers (UFW) union and its nonprofit advocacy arm, the UFW Foundation, allege that the US Department of Agriculture broke federal law when it abruptly announced in September that it was eliminating the Farm Labor Survey.

The survey is used to calculate the base pay for more than 200,000 migrant farm workers in the US on H-2A visas, known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate. Eliminating it for the first time since 1933, just as it was about to be conducted this October, means it cannot be used to set the rate for 2021, "a major departure in established US agricultural policy that would hurt farmers, their employees, and consumers," according to the lawsuit.

Without the survey, farm workers, deemed an essential labor force during the COVID-19 pandemic, could be paid as little as the federal minimum wage, which can be as low as $7.25 an hour — they are generally unable to organize and agitate for more, stuck with the employer who sponsored them — a decrease in pay amounting to thousands of dollars a season.

The US Department of Labor could devise a new method for calculating wages, but that would require a separate rulemaking process that could drag on for months. It has given no indication that it intends to do so.

Migrant workers are not the only ones who could be hurting. Under federal law, H-2A employers cannot pay any US citizen more than the minimum wage called for under the visa program. 

"How can Trump justify slashing pay for all farm workers in the US, which means cutting wages by up to a quarter or a half in some states?" United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero told Business Insider. "It's egregious. Trump will personally benefit from the policy change by paying less to workers at his Virginia vineyards," she said, referring to the US president's 1,300 acre estate in Charlottesville.

In the complaint, filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of California, UFW's lawyers argue that USDA violated federal law by announcing its decision without considering the impact on farm worker wages, failing to justify the move, and declining to provide an opportunity for public comment for going ahead with it.

UFW is asking the court to force the USDA to conduct its quarterly labor survey this month, as originally scheduled.

"This move corrupts a fundamental principle of the H-2A agricultural guest worker program by making it impossible to protect American domestic workers from wage suppression," Elizabeth Strater, a UFW organizer, said, noting that those workers will be competing with a labor pool "with far fewer legal rights."

Workers who obtain such visas enjoy strictly curtailed liberties; targeting their wages may be seen as a safe political move, lowering costs for their employers while obscuring the harm to citizens and permanent residents.

"This will have ripple effects across the whole country," she added.

USDA did not respond to a request for comment.

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