Farmworker Justice Update - 08/15/18

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.