Farmworker Justice Update - 07/06/18

Farmworker Justice Update: 07/06/18

Sen. Harris and Rep. Grijalva Introduce Overtime Bill for Farmworkers

On June 25, the 80th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), Sen. Harris (CA) and Rep. Grijalva (AZ) introduced the “Fairness for Farm Workers Act” (S 3131/HR 6230), which would amend the FLSA to include agricultural workers in its overtime provisions.  It would also remove most of the remaining exclusions of farmworkers from the minimum wage. As stated by Sen. Harris, the bill “is a matter of basic fairness and justice.” The bill has 9 original co-sponsors in the Senate and 51 original co-sponsors in the House. Farmworker Justice strongly supports the Fairness for Farm Workers Act, as do over 100 labor and civil rights organizations. More information about the legislation, including a summary and a factsheet, are available on our website.

On June 21, Members of the House sponsored a briefing on FLSA’s 80-year history. Speakers included FJ’s Bruce Goldstein as well as members of Congress and representatives from the Center for American Progress, the National Employment Law Project, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, the National Child Labor Coalition and labor unions.  In addition to FLSA’s exclusions of farmworkers from overtime and other protections, Bruce discussed the challenges posed to enforcement of the minimum wage due to farm labor contracting, mandatory individual arbitration and workers’ fear of retaliation.

Second House Vote on Immigration Fails, Future Action on Immigration Uncertain  

On June 27, the House of Representatives voted on the “Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2018,” HR 6136, known colloquially as the Ryan “compromise” immigration bill. The bill failed by a vote of 121-301. Although Rep. Goodlatte submitted a proposed amendment to the Ryan bill containing his “Agricultural Guestworker Act” (AGA), the amendment was ultimately not included in the bill. However, House Republican leadership has reportedly promised to bring a  bill related to agricultural workers to a vote before the August recess. That bill’s terms are likely to be based on the Goodlatte AGA. The issue of family separation, discussed in more detail below, is another topic that may be the focus of Congressional action on immigration in the weeks to come.

California Judge Issues Family Separation Injunction

On June 26, a federal judge in California issued an injunction ordering the Trump administration to stop separating families at the border. The injunction also mandates that separated children under five (5) must be reunited with their parents within 14 days (by July 10), and all other children must be reunited with their parents within 30 days (by July 26).  The judge’s order also states that adults may not be deported from the U.S. without their children unless they “affirmatively, knowingly, and voluntarily decline to be reunited.” In spite of the order, there are recent concerning reports that immigration agents are forcing parents to choose between leaving the country with or without their children in an attempt to coerce parents to drop their asylum claims.

ICE Raids May Further Silence Undocumented Workers

A recent immigration raid in Ohio has renewed concerns that immigration enforcement may make it more difficult for workers to denounce unsafe workplace conditions. Last month’s raid in an Ohio meat processing plant occurred just a few weeks after the company was fined for failing to provide proper guards for one of its machines, which resulted in the death of a worker in December. As stated by FJ President Bruce Goldstein, many workers are too afraid of retaliation to challenge unfair or illegal conduct, especially in light of the increase in immigration enforcement.

USDA’s Legacy of Discrimination against Black Farmers

A recent article explores the history of discrimination against black farmers by the U.S. government, particularly the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). There are approximately 44,000 black farmers in the U.S. today, making up less than 2% of the farmer population. By contrast, in 1920, black farmers made up approximately 14% of all farmers in the U.S. Advocates say this decrease is the result of active discrimination. For example, farmer Michael Stovall was repeatedly denied a USDA loan for lack of experience, despite the fact that his family had owned their farm for four generations. After more than a decade of litigation, Stovall was eventually awarded a settlement of $250,000. Stovall’s story is not unique. A class action brought against the USDA in 1999, Pigford v. Glickman, alleged racial discrimination and eventually resulted in payouts to over 80,000 individuals totaling more than a billion dollars. Currently, two of the biggest threats to black farm ownership include pressure from corporate farms to buy land for soybean and corn production and the ageing of black farmers without adequate estate planning to ensure the property stays in the family. More recently, Latino, Native American and women farmers sued the USDA for discrimination. Former USDA Secretary Vilsack established claims procedures and funds were set aside to pay successful claims.

Update on Farmworker Health and Safety

Farmworker Death from Heat Stress

Farmworker Justice expresses its condolences to the family of Miguel Angel Guzman Chavez, who died on June 21 from apparent heat stroke. Guzman Chavez, aged 24, had arrived in Georgia from Mexico on an H-2A temporary work visa just a few days earlier. He fell ill and collapsed while picking tomatoes. The temperature at the time was 95 degrees, with a heat index of up to 104 degrees. Several organizations are offering assistance to the family.

Need for Government Action to Prevent Heat Stress Deaths

Unfortunately, injuries and deaths from heat stress are not uncommon among farmworkers and yet they are almost always preventable. Farmworker Justice has sought federal safety standards to protect agricultural workers and is renewing our effort. In fact, Public Citizen, the United Farm Workers, and Farmworker Justice will soon petition the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to shield some of the most vulnerable U.S. populations, including farmworkers, by adopting heat stress protections. The petition will initiate the launch of a campaign to win a federal heat stress rule and encourage actions by state governments, as well as educate the public on the dangers of heat stress and the need to mitigate climate change. If your organization would like to sign on to the petition, please click here (the deadline for sign-on is July 10). For more information on this initiative, please contact FJ’s Director of Occupational & Environmental Health, Virginia Ruiz, at [email protected].  

Child Labor in Tobacco Fields

Recent articles in both The Guardian and The Atlantic detail the prevalence of child labor in the tobacco industry. Workers in tobacco fields are vulnerable to nicotine poisoning, known as green tobacco sickness, in addition to general health risks faced by farmworkers including heat stress, injuries and pesticide exposure. The lack of adequate child labor protections in agriculture, coupled with the broader exclusions of farmworkers from key labor protections, create a situation that is ripe for child labor. The widespread use of labor contractors in agriculture also exacerbates this issue, as farm operators claim ignorance regarding the presence of children in their fields or supply chains.   

Oral Arguments in Chlorpyrifos Case Set for July 9

On July 9, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will hear oral argument in a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding the agency’s decision to reverse a planned ban of the pesticide chlorpyrifos. Farmworker Justice is a plaintiff in the case. Chlorpyrifos was banned for household use two decades ago, and the EPA was set to ban the chemical for agricultural use as well, based on the agency’s own science. However, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt reversed course after pressure from Dow Chemical – the nation’s largest manufacturer of chlorpyrifos. The agency’s next safety review of chlorpyrifos is currently set for 2022.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt Resigns

On July 5, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt tendered his resignation. Pruitt was facing a series of ethics scandals and federal investigations related to his use of taxpayer funds for first class travel, security and other expenses, as well as use of his position to try to secure a job for his wife, among various other controversies. Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, will now be the acting EPA Administrator