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September 07, 2018

Farmworker Justice Update: 09/07/18

Congressional Action Post-Recess

Congress returned from August recess this week and has a limited number of legislative days left before the mid-term elections. Below are some of the key issues currently being considered:

Appropriations: Potential Impacts on H-2A Program

Congress is facing a September 30 deadline for passing FY 2019 appropriations bills; otherwise they risk a government shutdown. Given recent remarks by President Trump regarding a potential shutdown over border wall funding, it is very likely that there will be a continuing resolution (CR) for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appropriations bill, which covers funding for immigration enforcement. A CR is essentially an extension of current appropriations levels. Congress is also currently working on a serious of “minibuses” (packages consolidating various appropriations bills), which include labor, health, education, agriculture, defense spending and various other issues. There may ultimately be CRs on these remaining bills as well if no agreement is reached by September 30.

As a reminder, there are troubling riders related to the H-2A program in the House appropriations bills.  The House agricultural appropriations bill includes an H-2A rider that gives the USDA, rather than DOL, authority to establish and oversee a new online interagency platform for employers’ H-2A applications. This rider raises serious concerns about efforts to undermine DOL’s primary responsibility for ensuring worker protections are met and otherwise limit government oversight of the application process.  In addition, a rider was added to the House DHS appropriations bill that would expand the H-2A program to include year-round employment in agriculture. This change would not only undermine the intent of the H-2A program to address more difficult to fill temporary and seasonal jobs, but would also supplant many of the existing farmworkers who depend on these jobs for their livelihood and who are integral members of their communities.

Farm Bill

Another looming September 30 deadline for Congress is the expiration of the current Farm Bill. Senators and Representatives from both parties are working to reach a compromise as soon as possible, but various significant disagreements remain on issues including nutrition programs. One development that is particularly concerning for farmworkers is the potential inclusion of the “Pesticide Registration Improvement Extension Act of 2017,” PRIA 4, in the Farm Bill. As we have noted in previous updates, the Senate passed a standalone version of PRIA 4 which includes language guarding against rollbacks to pesticide protections for farmworkers. The Farm Bill PRIA language does not have these protections. As stated by Rep. Grijalva (TX) during a Farm Bill conference meeting, the House should instead pass the Senate version of PRIA in order to ensure farmworkers and their children are healthy and safe from pesticide exposure. Please click here to view a letter from over 100 children’s, agricultural, faith, health, industry, farmworker, and environmental organizations urging that PRIA be stripped from the Farm Bill.

Goodlatte Agricultural Guestworker Bill   

Despite the crowded Congressional calendar, the American Farm Bureau Federation is still attempting to garner support for a vote on Rep. Goodlatte’s “Ag and Legal Workforce Act,” H.R. 6417. Farmworker Justice strongly opposes Rep. Goodlatte’s bill and continues to educate members of Congress on the bill’s many anti-immigrant, anti-family and anti-worker provisions.

Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearing

September 4 marked the first day of confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in the Senate, which continued during the week. The hearings covered a wide range of issues, and were marked by protests as well as controversy regarding the release of documents. A vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination may occur as early as next week. Senate Republicans are hoping to confirm Kavanaugh before the Supreme Court reconvenes in October. Farmworker Justice joined a broad coalition letter stating many reasons to oppose Kavanaugh’s confirmation that was organized by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

U.S. and Mexico Reach NAFTA Deal, Canada Now in Negotiations

The U.S. and Mexico recently announced that they have reached a deal on the modernization of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the new deal will have a labor chapter that will include an Annex on collective bargaining in Mexico and new provisions regarding goods produced by forced labor and protection for migrant workers. Farmworker Justice has found the current NAFTA’s labor side agreement protections for U.S. and Mexican farmworkers to be weak. It remains to be seen if or when Canada, the remaining party to NAFTA, will agree to the terms proposed by the U.S. and Mexico. President Trump has threatened to leave Canada out of the revised deal entirely. One of the disputes concerns trade of milk and other dairy products. The White House gave Congress the required 90-day notification for the signing of NAFTA on August 31. Mexico’s current government leaves office December 1, so this timing would allow Mexico to sign the new deal before the country’s change in leadership.

DOL Debars North Carolina H-2A Contractor

On August 28, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (DOL WHD) announced the debarment of an H-2A farm labor contractor. Ruben V. Serna, owner of Serna Harvesting, owed $194,109 in back wages to 181 employees working at 15 different North Carolina farms. Serna charged the workers for housing and transportation, and failed to properly record hours in payroll records. FJ remains concerned that the increasing use of farm labor contractors by farm owners to hire H-2A workers leads to abuses that are not prevented if the owners are not held jointly responsible and liable for violations of workers’ rights.

Workplace Immigration Raid in Texas

A workplace raid near Paris, Texas last month led to the arrest of 160 workers. The raid resulted from a criminal investigation into the Load Trail company, which makes vehicle trailers. Many of the detained workers are Mexican nationals. This latest raid is the most recent example of workers facing family separation and possible deportation because of investigations regarding their employers.

One Year After Trump’s Rescission, DACA Remains, For Now

September 5 marked the one-year anniversary of the Trump Administration’s decision to rescind the DACA program. A series of lawsuits have been filed since then, most of which sought to preserve DACA. Injunctions from these lawsuits have resulted in the ability for current DACA holders to maintain and renew their status. On August 31, Judge Andrew Hanen ruled on a lawsuit led by the state of Texas seeking to end DACA. Judge Hanen did not order a halt to the DACA program, noting that to do so in the current context would cause more harm than the states claimed the program itself caused, while at the same time questioning the legality of the program. (Judge Hanen is the same judge who previously ruled against the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program.) There is likely to be an appeal of Judge Hanen’s decision, but in the meantime USCIS is still accepting and processing DACA renewal applications. Please see NILC’s FAQs on DACA renewals for more information.

CAP Report on Immigrants in Rural America

A recent report by the Center for American Progress (CAP) analyzes the impact of immigration on rural areas. The report found that in many rural areas immigration helped to fuel population growth or at least slow population decline. The report also states that immigrants have been an indispensable part of the agricultural sector, which provides employment for 1 out of 10 rural workers. It mentions crop production and dairy as two specific sectors that are highly dependent on immigrant labor.

Civil Eats Article on Yuma Lettuce Pickers

A recent Civil Eats article describes daily life for the farmworkers who pick lettuce in and around Yuma, Arizona. The Yuma Valley grows approximately 90% of all of the U.S.’ leafy greens during the winter. The article highlights the great work done by Campesinos sin Fronteras in providing needed basic services to farmworkers. (FJ has a long history of collaborating with CSF.) As noted throughout the article, for all the technological advancements in agriculture, the working conditions and pay for those still doing the bulk of this work have not significantly improved.

Update on Farmworker Health and Safety

Oral Arguments Held on ACA Case Texas v. United States

On September 5, oral arguments were heard in Texas v. United States (formerly Texas v. Azar). The lawsuit, brought by 18 state Attorneys General, argues that the ACA should be invalidated due to Congress’ elimination of the tax penalty under the ACA’s individual mandate. The lawsuit argues that the elimination of the penalty renders others parts of the ACA, including the guaranteed coverage of pre-existing conditions, unconstitutional. The Administration did not defend the key provisions of the ACA in court. Attorneys General from 16 other states and the District of Columbia, led by California, intervened to defend the ACA and its provisions in court. In anticipation of this case, Sen. Tillis (NC) introduced the “Ensuring Coverage for Patients with Pre-Existing Conditions Act” (S. 3388) on August 23. This bill proposes to amend the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to prevent insurers from denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions. However, the proposed bill does not prevent insurers from charging individuals based on age and gender or for specific services to treat those pre-existing conditions. The bill has been referred to the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee.

California Proposes to Ban Short-term Health Plans

In response to the recent federal rules authorizing expanded use of short-term health plans, the California Legislature passed a bill that would prohibit the sale of short-term health plans in California. Short-term health insurance plans are not subject to ACA standards such as essential health benefits coverage. SB 910 (sponsored by State Sen. Ed Hernandez) would prohibit the sale of health insurance plans that are less than 12 months. This bill is among a handful of bills passed by the legislature in direct response to recent Administration rules. These other bills include SB 1108, which would ban the state from implementing a work requirement for Medi-Cal, and SB 1375, which would prohibit the formation of Association Health Plans. Governor Brown has until September 30 to sign the bills into law.

Heat Stress Increasing Threat to Farmworkers

A recent Mother Jones article highlights the threat to farmworkers’ lives posed by extreme heat, which will only increase with the effects of climate change. The article mentions the campaign led by Public Citizen, the United Farm Workers Foundation and Farmworker Justice to petition the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for a national standard to prevent heat stress and the need to address this problem before it gets even worse.

August 16, 2018

This week, we celebrate National Health Center Week. Community health centers serve a vital role in the health and well-being of millions of people across the United States through the provision of affordable, high-quality preventative care.  Today, on agricultural worker health day, we want to highlight the important role of migrant health centers to the health of our nation’s agricultural workers and their families.

The barriers to health care access in farmworker communities are numerous: lack of transportation, fear due to immigration status, lack of health insurance, poverty, lack of sick leave, and cultural and linguistic barriers, among others. Migrant health centers tailor their services to the health care needs of agricultural workers and their families. Many health centers have mobile clinics that bring clinicians at hours that are convenient, such as nights and Sundays. Outreach workers and promotores de salud (lay health workers) provide health education to community members and help workers access the health center, make appointments, enroll in health insurance, etc. In addition, health centers provide services on a sliding fee scale so low-income patients who are uninsured or underinsured pay a discounted rate based on their income and family size.

There are 174 migrant health centers. Together, they served 972,251 agricultural workers and their families in 2017 (source: HRSA UDS 2017).  In many agricultural worker communities, migrant health centers are the primary source of health care. Yet only approximately 20% of the nation’s workers and their family members are seen by health centers. To increase access and utilization of health care services, FJ partners with national, state, and local organizations to promote collaboration between health centers and other farmworker-serving organizations, such as Migrant Head Start and legal services organizations.  As a HRSA National Cooperative Agreement, we developed materials to increase community awareness of health centers and promote access to health care. These materials, available in Spanish, English, and Haitian Creole are on FJ’s website.

Farmworkers and their families deserve health care that is affordable, accessible, and culturally competent. Farmworker Justice is pleased to celebrate Agricultural Worker Health Day and support health centers’ mission to provide high quality health care to farmworkers and others underserved populations.

August 16, 2018

Farmworker Justice Update: 08/15/18

H-2A Data Published for Third Quarter of FY 2018

The Department of Labor’s Office of Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC) recently released H-2A program data for the third quarter of FY 2018.  The data shows that there have been 193,603 positions certified so far this fiscal year. A total of 200,049 H-2A positions were certified in all of FY 2017. Thus, it is likely that the total number of positions certified in FY 2018 will be significantly higher than those certified in FY 2017, in line with the broader trend of continued growth of the H-2A program. The states of Georgia, Florida, Washington, North Carolina and California had the highest number of H-2A positions certified during the first three quarters of FY 2018, accounting for more than half of all positions certified.

Recent Cases Demonstrate Abuses in H-2A Program and Vulnerability of Workers

On August 6, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (DOL WHD) announced a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against Marin J. Corp, an H-2A employer in Missouri. WHD investigators found that the employer provided unsanitary and unsafe housing and also failed to pay workers required wages. Marin J. Corp employed more than 100 H-2A workers and housed some of the workers in a former jail. Several of the workers also reported fainting from heat stroke and the fields where they were working lacked adequate access to water and restroom facilities.

Also last week, farmworkers in New York filed a lawsuit against their employer for failure to pay legally required wages and for providing unsafe and overcrowded housing.  The workers are represented by the Worker Justice Center of New York. They are seeking unpaid wages and overtime pay from 2012 through the present, plus monetary damages for the substandard housing. The employer involved participates in the H-2A program, but allegedly paid the plaintiffs, who are domestic workers, lower wages than those required under the program.

In Washington, there is ongoing activism and challenges following the death of an H-2A worker last year. Fellow workers were fired when they went on strike to demand better working conditions and their employer, Sarbanand Farms, was fined earlier this year by the DOL for not providing required breaks and meal periods. The case is detailed in a recent article in The American Prospect by David Bacon entitled “What Was the Life of this Guest Worker Worth?” The article quotes FJ President Bruce Goldstein on a variety of H-2A issues. It also mentions WAFLA’s (formerly the Washington Farm Labor Association) manipulation of wage surveys in order to drive down wages. FJ is working with Washington state advocates to protect farmworker wages.

ICE Raids Agricultural Facilities in Nebraska and Minnesota

On August 8, ICE raided various facilities in Nebraska and Minnesota, including a tomato greenhouse, a cattle feedlot and a potato processing facility. ICE agents arrested 133 workers.  Seventeen employers were also arrested based on allegations including wire fraud and money laundering. The arrests resulted from an investigation centered on a recruiter who hired workers for the various businesses involved. The recruiter allegedly forced employees to cash their paychecks at his grocery store, charging them a fee. He also allegedly withheld a portion of each paycheck, claiming he was withholding taxes but instead pocketing the money.

A particularly disturbing aspect of these recent raids is that the employees who were allegedly cheated by these abusive employers are being detained themselves. This will likely have a chilling effect on other employees who might be willing to denounce employer abuses in the future, because they will fear immigration reprisals for themselves or their colleagues. The local communities in the areas where the raids occurred have of course been severely impacted. A public school opened its doors to offer counseling for individuals affected by the raids, including many children whose family members, including parents, were detained.  A protest and vigil were held shortly after the raids. Some neighbors also voiced concerns about the economic impact that the raids will have on these small rural communities.

Legal Battle over the Status of DACA Continues Amidst Legislative Inaction

On August 3, a federal judge in D.C. vacated the government’s rescission of the DACA program. This means that the government may soon have to start accepting new DACA applications, in addition to processing renewals, which is currently required pursuant to previous orders by judges in California and New York. The D.C. judge’s order will go into effect on August 23 unless the U.S. government obtains a stay of the order by that date. In the meantime, a case challenging DACA is currently being litigated in Texas and could result in a judge ruling that DACA must be terminated and that the government must stop receiving applications. If that happens, there could be contradictory orders regarding DACA from different courts in the country. Any conflicting court decisions would need to be appealed and may ultimately end up before the Supreme Court, though the timeline for a potential Supreme Court decision still remains unclear.  This uncertainty is weighing heavily on Dreamers as they continue to plan their futures. For a full summary of ongoing litigation related to DACA, please see this chart prepared by the National Immigration Law Center (NILC).

Update on Farmworker Health and Safety

Court Orders EPA To Ban Pesticide Chlorpyrifos Within 60 Days

In a significant victory for farmworkers, public health and the environment, on August 9 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the EPA to ban the highly toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos within 60 days. The ruling was the result of a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice and various other advocacy groups. Farmworker Justice was a plaintiff in the lawsuit.  As has been noted in previous FJ updates, the EPA had been set to ban chlorpyrifos, which has been linked to neurodevelopmental damage in children, but former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt decided not to ban the pesticide after meeting with agrochemical industry representatives.

As stated by Virginia Ruiz, FJ’s Director of Occupational and Environmental Health, farmworkers and their families have needlessly suffered from exposure to chlorpyrifos for far too long. Chlorpyrifos is currently used in over 50 different crops, including corn, soybeans, fruit and nut trees, and broccoli. Corteva, the agricultural division of DowDuPont, issued a statement soon after the ruling calling for an appeal to the decision. Crop Life America, another major manufacturer of the pesticide, has also called for an appeal of the ruling. The EPA has stated that it is reviewing the decision and has not yet decided whether it will appeal the ban.

NPR Highlights Rural Housing Crisis

A recent NPR report highlights the lack of adequate, affordable housing in rural areas of the U.S. The article focuses on a small Nebraska town and the lack of adequate housing for workers in a variety of industries, but does not mention farmworkers. However, the general scarcity of housing in rural areas often makes it even harder for farmworkers to find safe and affordable places to live. This reality is part of the reason why it is so important to maintain crucial protections in the H-2A program that require employers to provide housing for workers.

Latest News

July 26, 2018

The House Appropriations Committee today, in the spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security, inserted a fundamental, substantive policy change to the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program. The amendment would expand the scope of the H-2A program to allow H-2A visas to be issued without regard to whether the jobs are temporary or seasonal.  Rep. Newhouse (R-WA) led this effort.

 

June 25, 2018

Farmworker Justice strongly supports the Fairness for Farm Workers Act introduced today in the Senate and the House by Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California and Representative Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona with numerous cosponsors. Farmworker Justice and our partners have been working with members of Congress on this important step toward treating agricultural workers with the respect they deserve.

January 25, 2018

Leading farmworker organizations and advocates for farmworkers in the United States and Mexico today are submitting a petition under the NAFTA labor side agreement challenging the failure of the United States government to comply with its obligations to protect international migrant workers who are hired under the H-2A agricultural guestworker program.  

The petition was submitted to the National Administrative Office in Mexico City for the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC), requesting action by the North American Commission on Labor Cooperation (“Commission”), which the U.S., Mexico and Canada established.

The petition was submitted by Farmworker Justice; the United Farm Workers (UFW); the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO (FLOC); and Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN, Oregon’s farmworker union), which are based in the United States, and Proyecto de Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales, A.C (ProDESC), which is based in Mexico.

Principle 11 of the NAALC, on Protection of Migrant Workers, states the parties’ goal of providing migrant workers in one nation’s territory with the same labor law protection that apply to its own nationals.  The Agreement also imposes enforceable obligations on the three nations to provide high labor standards; effective, impartial tribunals; effective remedies to achieve compliance with labor laws; and effective action by each government to enforce workers’ rights.

The principal federal employment law for farmworkers in the United States excludes H-2A agricultural workers from its protections and remedies.  That law is the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act of 1983 (referred to as “AWPA” or “MSPA”).  It was passed to address persistent problems faced by farmworkers and strengthened an earlier law.

The petitioners seek to reduce abuses in the H-2A program, which recently has been expanding rapidly, to over 200,000 agricultural guestworkers in 2017, mostly from Mexico.  Abuses in the H-2A program have been reported by many sources over many years, including in the Farmworker Justice report, “No Way to Treat a Guest,” and a series of articles in Buzzfeed.   

The AWPA establishes obligations on farm operators and other agricultural businesses, including farm labor contractors. The AWPA contains significant protections regarding recruitment, hiring, employment, payment of wages, transportation, and housing of migrant farmworkers.  Importantly, the AWPA authorizes victimized workers to file a lawsuit in U.S. federal courts to enforce its protections.  It creates several remedies to compensate workers, stop ongoing violations, and deter future violations, including monetary damages, special “statutory damages” and injunctive relief.  

The exclusion of H-2A visa workers from the AWPA deprives them of labor protections, remedies, and access to federal courts, all of which have been deemed important and effective to protect migrant workers in the United States. Although the law and regulations of the H-2A program require certain protections for U.S. and foreign workers at H-2A program employers, the AWPA provides different and additional protections and remedies for U.S. migrant workers.  H-2A guestworkers seeking to enforce their employment contracts are relegated to state courts and often to inferior remedies under state contract laws.

H-2A guestworkers, arguably among the migrant workers most in need of protection due to their vulnerability, should not be excluded from AWPA’s protections and remedies.    

The petition, formally known as a “public communication,” requests commencement of proceedings under the Labor Side Agreement, formally known as the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC), to address the violations of the NAALC and obtain all appropriate remedies.  The petition seeks agreement among the U.S., Mexico and Canada, that the protections and remedies in the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, or their equivalent, will be extended to migrant workers employed in the United States under the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program.

Contact information:

 

Bruce Goldstein

President, Farmworker Justice

Washington, D.C. 20036

202-800-2521

[email protected]

www.farmworkerjustice.org

 

Leydy Rangel

Communications Specialist

United Farm Workers Foundation

California

[email protected] / (760) 899-4604

(bilingual)

 

Elena Villafuerte

Responsable del Programa de Análisis e Incidencia

Proyecto de Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales (ProDESC)

(5255) 52122229/ 52122230- 758608840/ 75860885

[email protected]

Calle Zamora 169-A Condesa, México D.F.

Facebook /ProDESC.AC

Twitter: @ProDESC

www.prodesc.org.mx

(bilingual)