Washington’s foreign guest workers will continue to be paid considerably more than the state’s minimum wage and 20 times more than they can earn in their home countries despite the union’s accusations of racism and greed
The United Farm Workers (UFW) union is claiming the federal administration is cutting farm worker pay “in the midst of a pandemic.” It has filed a lawsuit against the US Department of Agriculture claiming that the changed method of determining wages for guest workers is: “arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion.” The subtitle of their press release suggests that the action by the government is tied somehow to white supremacy and their press release claims that President Trump made the changes for his own personal gain.
The UFW has been struggling to try to gain relevance in the wake of rejection by over 99% of California’s farmworkers. The once honorable and important voice for farmworkers has faced not only nearly unanimous rejection by farmworkers but has lost lawsuits brought by their own union employees for retaliation and failure to pay workers’ wages. A California court had to take dues from the small group of farmworkers still under the union to pay the $2 million settlement.
The desperation of current leaders to regain some semblance of legitimacy is shown in the repeated lies and false accusations. Now, they falsely claim that efforts by the US Department of Agriculture to create a more reasonable and sustainable method of determining farmworker pay for guest workers represents a cut in pay and is unfair to workers. The facts make clear that this is just one more in a long line of misrepresentations by the discredited union leaders.
In Washington state and Oregon guest workers are paid $15.83 per hour minimum wage in 2020. That is the highest in the nation. Most earn considerably more than that based on incentive pay. Farmers compete against foreign farmers who pay far, far less for the manual labor needed to grow and harvest fruit and vegetable crops. Mexican minimum wage is 79 cents per hour. That means workers from Mexico harvesting Washington crops get paid 20 times more than if they were working for Mexican farmers. More than that, by federal law farmers pay for the workers’ transportation to and from their homes and provide free government-inspected housing.
To put this in perspective, let’s say your favorite coffee shop pays its barista the average barista pay of $10.68 per hour. But, the federal government requires the owner to pay these workers $213.60 per hour––that’s the same as the difference between Washington and Mexican minimum wage for farmworkers. Oh yes, and the government says your owner must provide free housing for its baristas and free transportation to and from their jobs even if they live far, far away. Your coffee stand would be forced to close. Few businesses can sustain paying 20 times what their competitor pays plus free transportation and housing.
American farmers have adapted by becoming ever more efficient and turning to mechanization to reduce labor costs. That, of course, reduces job opportunities. Guest workers return 80% of their pay to their families. They would have to work ten to eleven years full-time in Mexico to earn what they can in a single season helping harvest our fruit crops. No wonder they eagerly apply for these life-changing jobs that enable them to build houses, pay for the children’s higher education and even start their own farms or businesses.
Given the severe shortage of American workers able and willing to do the hard work of farming, farmers would willingly pay far more to attract the needed workers. What coffee shop owner wouldn’t want to be in a position to attract amazing workers by offering them $200 per hour? It’s competition that requires comparable pay.
Despite their remarkable efficiency, American farmers are losing out to foreign competitors all the time, and the very high cost of labor is one of the biggest reasons. It’s why we now import about 55% of our fresh fruit and 40% of our fresh vegetables––and food borne illnesses are rising at the same rate as imported food.
The UFW is complaining that the USDA has changed the way it determines the minimum pay that farmers are required to pay guest workers. The truth is that the new formula the USDA will use for guest workers is a far more reasonable way to ensure guest workers are very fairly paid, especially given the crippling shortage of available American workers.
When the federal government set up the H2-A or agricultural guest worker program, farmers did not have the severe labor shortage we have now. The concern was that hiring foreign workers would take away opportunities for American workers. That’s why the law established what’s called the Adverse Employment Wage Rate, or AEWR and why hiring foreign workers with legal visas was only to be allowed when a farmer had exhausted all efforts to hire American workers. Despite the shortage of workers, farmers must still prove to the Department of Labor that they have done all they can to recruit and hire American workers before a single guest worker will be allowed.
The UFW press release describes how the wages for guest workers previously were determined:
“AEWRs are based on the average combined gross wage for field and livestock workers in the region based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Agricultural Labor Survey and Farm Labor reports.”
Basing these rates on the Farm Labor Survey resulted in wage increases for guest workers considerably above the rate of inflation and what comparable workers were earning. At $13.50 per hour in 2020, Washington state has the highest minimum wage of any state in the nation. But, farmworkers were paid a minimum wage of $15.83 per hour––over $2 more per hour. Any American worker hired to do the same work as the guest worker must be paid the same as the guest worker, so American workers benefit when guest workers are hired.
The previous method of calculating guest worker wages resulted in unsustainable increases in worker pay. For example, in Idaho farmworker pay increased by 16% in just one year. In Washington, farmworker pay has increased by 4% per year in four of the last five years. At the same time, inflation based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Employment Cost Index increased at a rate of 2.8%.
The USDA has ruled that tying farmworker pay to this inflation index makes far more sense and will provide predictable labor costs farmers need to plan for the future. They also determined that they are not going to go backwards in what farmworkers are being paid now, so the current $15.83 per hour minimum will remain in place through 2022.
The USDA understands the farm labor situation is not what it was when the guest worker law was put in place. Farmers face the choice of letting crops rot or plowing under hundreds of acres of fruit orchards or paying the most they possibly can for workers. In a highly competitive labor market, wages are going to rise until a farmer faces bankruptcy. Wages are rising and those who can’t afford to pay are selling out to larger, more efficient farms.
The guest worker program is extremely expensive, not just because of the pay but also because of the associated costs of free housing, transportation and the mountains of bureaucracy involved. Only the largest farms are able to use this program to fill the gaps left by declining American workers. And that means smaller farms are selling out to larger farms because they simply can’t afford the high cost of labor and operating under the guest worker laws. No one wants to see us lose our smaller farms––except maybe the UFW.
But, it’s not just small farms that are victims of previous policies. Unsustainable increases in labor costs will eventually mean the end of our larger family farms. Unless voters begin to wake up to this fact, the only food available will come from foreign farms. The pandemic has awakened many in our cities to the critical importance of food security. Actions by leaders of UFW and FUJ are threats to American food security.
Consistent accusations by UFW and other union activists that farmers underpay and mistreat workers is proven false and makes no sense. As one farmer stated: “We are only as good as our workforce.” Domestic and guest workers alike are highly valued and many establish longterm relationships with their employers returning year after year. Those believing the lies of activists about worker housing have not seen the high quality facilities provided by almost all farms.
Farmworkers are not facing a cut in pay. The UFW should apologize for mistating the facts. Farmworkers are very hardworking people engaged in essential labor even without a pandemic. The current high minimum wage will be maintained and then increases will be based on inflation––a most reasonable measure. What the USDA is trying to do is to keep American farmers growing food for all of us. To claim racism or personal greed is behind this effort should be seen for what it is: the desperate measures of the leaders of a once proud and honorable but now discredited and largely irrelevant union.