Farmworker Justice Update - 01/11/19

Agribusiness Employers File Suit to Stop Implementation of 2019 AEWR

On January 7, the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE), along with grower Peri & Sons Farms, Inc., filed a lawsuit in D.C. federal court seeking to stop the Department of Labor (DOL)’s implementation of the 2019 Adverse Effect Wage Rates (AEWRs) for the H-2A program. In order to ensure that U.S. workers are not adversely affected by the H-2A program, H-2A employers must offer the highest of five minimum wage rates: the applicable federal or state minimum wage; the local prevailing wage for that occupation; any collectively bargained wage rate; or the AEWR.

The AEWR is set annually by DOL based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s surveys of wages paid by agricultural employers.  The current formulation of the AEWR, which was reinstated in the 2010 H-2A regulations, was initially established under the Reagan Administration. The NCAE lawsuit seeks to stop the implementation of the 2019 wage rates and sought a temporary restraining order, which was denied on January 8. DOL had already announced the new AEWR rates for 2019 in December 2018. The new wages were set to be implemented on January 9, meaning that as of Wednesday (January 9) and for the time being, the 2019 AEWR rates are now in effect. However, litigation is ongoing and the judge will soon determine whether or not to grant a preliminary injunction stopping implementation of the new wages.

Also on January 9, the United Farm Workers union (UFW) filed a motion to intervene in the case, as its members would be affected by any decreases to the AEWR. Farmworker Justice is representing the UFW in this case, along with the private law firm Covington and Burling LLP, on a pro bono basis. If the growers’ lawsuit succeeds, many U.S. workers, as well as H-2A workers, will receive lower wages. The 2019 AEWRs for most states are higher than the 2018 rates, following a pattern of modest improvements over the past few years. This lawsuit is the latest example of agricultural employers admitting a tightening farm labor market, which should result in competitive wage increases, while seeking exemption from the law of supply and demand that applies to other businesses.

New Jersey Minimum Wage Law Might Discriminate Against Farmworkers  

New Jersey legislators are negotiating a potential bill to increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. However, a key lawmaker, NJ Senate President Steve Sweeney, is proposing to exempt farmworkers from the $15 per hour minim wage; instead subjecting them to a lower minimum of wage of $12.50 an hour. Sen. Sweeney represents an area of South Jersey with many farms. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median farmworker wage in New Jersey is currently between $11.70 and $12.92 an hour; thus, the “increase” to $12.50 would not be a wage increase in real terms for many farmworkers. $12.50 is also less than the 2019 H-2A program AEWR for the state of New Jersey, which is $13.15, further proof that the supposed pay increase would not represent a meaningful improvement on farmworkers’ current wages.

As stated by Farmworker Justice President Bruce Goldstein, this proposal would be “a continuation of a long history of discrimination against farmworkers.”  We also agree with CATA, a New Jersey nonprofit group that advocates for migrant farmworkers, that farm work is no less valuable than any other category of work, and farmworkers deserve the same minimum wage as any other worker.  It’s time to end the unfair and unequal treatment of farmworkers; not create new discriminatory exceptions from basic protections other workers enjoy.

Shutdown Continues as President Trump Insists on Border Wall Funding

Today marks day number twenty-one (21) of what may soon become the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. The partial shutdown is a result of President Trump’s insistence that Congress provide over $5.7 billion to fund the construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Democratic Congressional leaders have stated that they will not provide any amount over $1.6 billion for border security (which was the amount in a previous Senate appropriations bill for FY 2019).  President Trump is also reportedly weighing whether to declare a national emergency along the border in order to bypass Congressional approval for funding for the wall. Meanwhile, nearly 800,000 federal workers have either been furloughed or have had to continue working without pay, affecting a wide range of government services.

Senate to Weigh William Barr Nomination for Attorney General  

The Senate Judiciary Committee is currently scheduled to hold confirmation hearings on January 15 and 16 for William Barr for the position of Attorney General. Earlier this week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY) called on President Trump to withdraw Barr’s nomination, based on his previous criticism of the Mueller investigation. Barr previously served as Attorney General during the Administration of George H.W. Bush. A coalition of civil rights organizations recently expressed serious concerns regarding Barr’s nomination, given his past record on subjects ranging from criminal justice reform to LGBTQ and reproductive rights, as well as his anti-immigrant views. Some of his troubling anti-immigrant positions include his support for the current administration’s Muslim ban as well as his past role in detaining HIV-positive Haitian asylum seekers at Guantanamo Bay in the early 1990s.

Update on Farmworker Health and Safety

EPA Backs Off Plan to Weaken Worker Protection Rules

Last week, Acting Administrator Wheeler committed in a letter to Senators Carper (D-DE) and Barrasso (R-WY) to abandon EPA’s efforts to rollback critical elements of the Worker Protection Standard (WPS) and the Certification of Pesticide Applicators (CPA) rule, in exchange for Senate confirmation of various political appointees to the agency. After two years of efforts by environmental and worker rights advocates to defend the WPS and CPA rule before the EPA, the courts and Congress, and to ensure the rules’ effective implementation, this is a major breakthrough. The draft of the proposed rules that we have been opposing are currently under review at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and we will continue to monitor EPA’s actions to make sure the proposals are formally withdrawn. FJ will also continue its efforts to codify Wheeler’s promises in legislation early in this congressional session through language in the reauthorization of the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act (PRIA).

Wheeler’s letter also states that the EPA is still planning to propose a revision to the Application Exclusion Zone (AEZ) provision of the WPS, with a public comment period of at least 90 days. We fully expect EPA to propose harmful changes to the AEZ provision later this year. The AEZ provides a measure of protection to workers and bystanders from off-target drift during pesticide applications. FJ and partner organizations will work to preserve those protections, including through the submission of comments once the proposed changes are published.

Legislation Banning Chlorpyrifos Introduced in House

Earlier this week, Representative Nydia Velasquez (D-NY) introduced the “Pesticide Protection Act,” which would ban the sale of chlorpyrifos, a toxic chemical that has been linked to damaging health outcomes in workers, pregnant women and children. The bill, H.R. 230, currently has over 40 co-sponsors. The EPA was previously set to ban the use of chlorpyrifos under the Obama administration; however, it later reversed its decision under the Trump administration. Farmworker Justice, along with various environmental and worker rights groups, is currently involved in a lawsuit against the EPA in which the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered the agency to ban chlorpyrifos. However, EPA has appealed that decision and the litigation is still ongoing.

Labor Contractor Fined by OSHA after Worker Heat Stress Death

Last month, Georgia agricultural labor contractor Beiza Brothers Harvesting was fined $12,934 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for conditions that led to the death of a worker from heat stress. Previous FJ updates detailed the conditions leading up to the tragic death of the 24-year old worker while picking tomatoes in extremely high temperatures. OSHA also issued additional citations against Beiza Brothers related to a failure to train employees about hazardous chemicals and unsafe equipment, but did not levy additional fines for these citations.

Update on Texas v. U.S. and Status of ACA

After Judge O’Connor issued a stay in the Texas v. U.S. lawsuit, the 17 Democratic Attorneys General who defended the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) provisions filed an appeal with the Fifth Circuit on January 3. The Department of Justice (DOJ) filed its own appeal the following day. The Fifth Circuit has yet to schedule an initial briefing. As the appeals process moves forward, the ACA and its provisions remain in effect. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives filed the first of two motions to intervene in defense of the ACA.

A recent poll conducted by Protect Our Care shows that more than half of voters oppose the recent decision in Texas v. U.S. and 59% want to see the ACA remain in effect with fixes made as necessary. On January 3, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released its final enrollment report that showed 8.4 million consumers enrolled in health insurance through healthcare.gov during the 2019 open enrollment period. This number is only 4% less than enrollment last year, despite the additional cuts to outreach and navigator programs. Enrollment is still open in a handful of states including Colorado (until January 12), California (January 15), and New York (January 31).