Farmworker Justice Update - 09/07/18

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.