Farmworker Justice Update: 11/09/18

Rulemakings Related to the H-2A Program

Today, the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration (DOL ETA) issued notices of proposed rulemaking regarding the recruitment requirements for the H-2 visa programs, both H-2A and H-2B. Farmworker Justice plans to draft comments on this proposal to ensure that recruitment protections for U.S. workers are not weakened. Comments are due December 10.

Last month, DOL ETA announced a proposed revision of the forms used for employer certification under the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa program. The two forms being revised are Form ETA-9142A, which is the form employers use to apply for H-2A workers, and Form 790, which is the agricultural clearance order that contains job terms and instructions for job applicants. FJ will also draft comments for this rulemaking (the deadline for these comments is December 24).
Additionally, FJ is anticipating that, as announced in DOL’s fall regulatory agenda, there will be a broader set of proposed changes related to the H-2A program published in the coming months. FJ is deeply concerned that the anticipated changes could reduce critically important farmworker protections in the H-2A program. FJ will continue to monitor any administrative attempts to undo the current protections in the H-2A program.

USDA Proposed Changes to Farm Labor Survey Used in H-2A Program

Farmworker Justice submitted comments on November 8 to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) regarding its proposal to make changes in its Agricultural Labor Survey (ALS), formerly known as the Farm Labor Survey.  The ALS includes data from farm operators regarding the wages paid to farmworkers. Although there are shortcomings in the survey that limit is value, it provides helpful information. For many years the Department of Labor has set the H-2A program “adverse effect wage rates” for each state based on the ALS findings for average hourly earnings of the combined category of field and livestock workers. The proposed change in the survey regarding wage reporting contained vague and troubling language that could lead to understating farmworkers’ wage rates and artificially lowering the minimum wage rates required under the H-2A program.  FJ therefore opposed some of the proposed revisions to the survey’s questions.

Washington Ag Employer Fined for Discrimination, Sexual Harassment and Retaliation  

Last month, the Washington State Attorney General announced a consent decree ordering Horning Brothers, LLC, an agricultural employer, to pay $525,000 for claims of sexual harassment, sex discrimination and retaliation. The company must also adopt non-discrimination and anti-retaliation policies. The Northwest Justice Project worked on the case alongside the WA Attorney General, and represented five of the affected workers. In a lawsuit filed last year, the plaintiffs alleged that the company, which owns an onion packing shed, only hired women to sort onions on the packing line, and limited the hiring of women for other positions. Furthermore, the company ignored female employees’ complaints about sexual harassment by one of its foremen, and retaliated against those who complained. This case highlights that discrimination and harassment are unfortunately still very prevalent for women in the agricultural industry.

Massachusetts Overtime Pay Case for Agricultural Workers

On November 5, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments in a case which has the potential to award overtime pay for workers who clean, pack and sort bean sprouts at an indoor growing and packing facility. The case presents an issue of first impression under Massachusetts law, which, like federal law, excludes farmworkers from the right to overtime pay. Generally, workers in a processing plant are not considered agricultural workers for purposes of the overtime exemption. Farmworker Justice has supported efforts to amend federal and state employment laws to end the discriminatory exemption of agricultural employers from paying agricultural workers overtime.  

Ballot Measures Increasing Minimum Wage Succeed in Arkansas and Missouri

Two ballot measures increasing state minimum wages succeeded in the November 6 midterm election. The state of Arkansas voted to gradually increase its minimum wage from $8.50 an hour to $11 an hour within the next three years, while Missouri voters approved a gradual increase from $7.85 an hour to $12 an hour within the next five years, with further adjustments based on the consumer price index. However, some exemptions for particular agricultural businesses and farmworkers from the minimum laws in these states mean that some farmworkers will not benefit from these changes. There are exceptions in the state laws applicable specifically to agriculture that are similar to those in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), including for small agricultural employers; livestock workers on the open range; family members of the farm operator; children under age 16 employed on piece rate; and for those farmworkers who are hired on piece-rates to do harvesting and worked in agriculture less than 13 weeks in a prior year.  

Mixed Midterm Election Results

The November 6 midterm elections led to mixed results for Congress: Democrats were able to take control of the House, while Republicans deepened their control of the Senate. The prospects for progress on legislation that would benefit farmworkers remain very limited, but several proposals in the last Congress that threatened farmworkers’ employment rights and immigration status are not likely to proceed in this Congress. With Democrats assuming leadership roles in key House committees in January, they will be poised to conduct oversight over the President’s actions, as well as the policies of government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Labor (DOL), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA). Each party will also soon be selecting its internal party leadership. House GOP leadership elections are scheduled for November 14, with Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) competing for the role of minority leader.  Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has announced her campaign for Speaker of the House, the position she held when Democrats previously held the majority of House seats.

Government Asks Supreme Court to Intervene in DACA Cases As Program Continues

Yesterday, a federal court in California continued the injunction against the Trump Administration that prevents it from terminating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in favor of the preliminary injunction issued earlier this year by U.S. District Judge William Alsup, which kept DACA operational while its future continues to be litigated. Two other decisions by federal judges earlier this year, in New York and Washington, D.C., also led to injunctions against the Administration’s decision to end the DACA program, thus allowing DACA recipients to renew their applications. Since January 2018, approximately 180,000 DACA recipients have renewed their applications.

Earlier this week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) petitioned the Supreme Court to fast track these DACA cases. If the Supreme Court grants certiorari and decides to take the cases, the earliest a ruling could be expected is June 2019.  If you or someone you know has DACA status which expires within the next 6 months, experts recommend that you consult with an immigration attorney and submit your renewal application. Unfortunately, at this time, no first-time DACA applications are being accepted. You can learn more about the status of current DACA cases, as well as steps to take to renew your DACA status here.    

 Jeff Sessions No Longer Attorney General

On November 7, President Trump announced via Twitter that Jeff Sessions will no longer be serving as Attorney General, the highest post in the Department of Justice (DOJ), having been forced to resign immediately after the election. Matthew G. Whitaker, who was the Justice Department Chief of Staff, was appointed Acting Attorney General until a permanent replacement is confirmed. During his tenure as Attorney General, Sessions, a former Senator from Alabama, pursued a strenuous agenda antagonistic to immigrants, civil rights and liberties, and criminal justice reform.  

Update on Farmworker Health and Safety

Scientific Paper on Pesticide Exposure and Children’s Neurodevelopment

A new scientific paper details the dangers that organophosphates, which are widely used agricultural pesticides, pose to children’s health and development. The researchers found that even low levels of exposure can lead to cognitive problems in children. One of these pesticides, chlorpyrifos, was on track to be banned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but the current Administration ignored the findings of its own scientists and has allowed continued use of the neurotoxin. Worker and health advocates challenged the Administration’s reversal, and that litigation is currently ongoing (as detailed in previous FJ updates.) The paper also sets out some recommendations that could result in substantial reductions in pesticide exposure. You can read the full paper here.

Report on Impact of Heat Stress on Florida Workers

A recently released report by Public Citizen and the Farmworker Association of Florida details the impact of heat stress on Florida workers. According to the report, farmworkers and construction workers are the highest risk populations, not just because of their exposure to heat, but also because of other factors, such as fear of immigration enforcement, which might make them less likely to voice health or safety concerns. The threat of heat illness is growing due to rising global temperatures. As mentioned in previous updates, FJ, along with Public Citizen and many others, is involved in a national campaign for a federal heat stress standard. If you are interested in supporting this campaign, please contact FJ’s Director of Occupational & Environmental Health, Virginia Ruiz, at [email protected].

Farmwork Among Fifteen Most Dangerous Jobs Based on Fatality and Injury Rates

 A recent article ranks jobs based on occupational fatality and injury rates of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. It states that agricultural workers (separate from farmers) have the 11th most dangerous job while also having the lowest wages on the list of 15 most dangerous jobs. The article calculated that farmworkers are five times more likely to have a fatal injury than the average worker. The most common cause of fatal injury for most of the occupations, including farmworkers, was transportation accidents. The article may understate the dangers of agricultural work. The BLS data for 2016 by industry shows that the farming, fishing and forestry category had the highest rate of fatalities per 100,000 workers, at 23.2, over 6 times the 3.6 overall average rate. At a more detailed level, in crop production, the rate of fatalities per 100,000 workers was 20.9, higher than mining and construction and only slightly lower than transportation. The rate for animal production and aquaculture was 20.9.