Farmworker Justice Update - 02/06/19

Farmworker Justice Update: 02/06/19

Legislation Regarding Farmworkers Introduced in 116th Congress

Agricultural Worker Program Act Would Provide Path to Citizenship for Farmworkers

On January 17, Senator Feinstein and Congresswoman Lofgren (both of CA) introduced the “Agricultural Worker Program Act of 2019,” (S. 175/H.R. 641). The bill is critically important for our nation’s food and agriculture system. Under the Trump administration, farmworker communities across the country are living and working in fear of immigration enforcement and deportation. If enacted, this legislation would alleviate that fear by providing farmworkers and their families an opportunity to earn legal immigration status. The legislation would provide a path to temporary legal status followed by lawful permanent residency for eligible farmworkers who meet agricultural work requirements. Immediate family members would also be eligible to obtain a “blue card” and lawful permanent residency. The bill is a bridge until comprehensive reform can be enacted and will provide desperately needed legal status for farmworkers while stabilizing the agricultural economy. You can find fact sheets summarizing the bill, in both English and Spanish, as well as a diagram detailing the application process, on our website. Please complete this form to sign your organization on to a letter asking Members of Congress to support this legislation. The bill currently has 61 co-sponsors in the House and 11 co-sponsors in the Senate.

BARN Act Would Weaken H-2A Program Protections

Also last month, Rep. Allen (GA) re-introduced the “Better Agricultural Resources Now (BARN) Act,” H.R. 60. The bill would eliminate important H-2A program requirements that serve to protect both U.S. workers and foreign guestworkers. Among its various provisions, it would eliminate guaranteed housing, decrease farmworker wages, limit worker access to legal help, expand the H-2A program to year-round jobs, and change oversight of the program from the Department of Labor (DOL), which is currently tasked with protecting workers’ rights, to the Department of Agriculture (USDA). You can find more information about the bill in our fact sheet. The bill currently has no co-sponsors.

Preliminary Injunction Hearing Held in Case Regarding H-2A Wage Rates

On January 28, U.S. District Judge for the District of Columbia Timothy Kelly held a hearing in the case of Peri & Sons Farms, Inc. v. Acosta. As noted in a previous update, this lawsuit, brought by the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE), seeks to reverse the DOL’s implementation of the 2019 Adverse Effect Wage Rates (AEWRs) for the H-2A program and freeze wages at the 2018 levels, which are lower for most states. The United Farm Workers, represented by Farmworker Justice and the law firm Covington and Burling LLP, had filed a motion prior to the hearing seeking to intervene in the case, as its members would be affected by any decreases to the AEWR. Several individual farmworkers, represented by Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, Inc. (TRLA) and Public Citizen, had also filed a motion to intervene.

During the hearing, Judge Kelly granted both motions to intervene from the farmworker representatives. The Judge then heard oral arguments. The government and the intervenors reiterated the legal analyses in their written briefs requesting denial of the motion for preliminary injunction and dismissal of the case. Additionally, the Judge asked the parties if they would agree to a simultaneous ruling on both the preliminary injunction and the merits of the case. After the hearing, the parties agreed to such a joint ruling. The parties are now awaiting the Judge’s decision, which should be issued soon.

New Jersey Passes Minimum Wage Law That Discriminates against Farmworkers

On February 4, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a bill to gradually raise the minimum wage in the state to $15. Under the bill, most workers will be entitled to receive $15 per hour by 2024.  However, the bill allows employers to pay farmworkers lower wages than other workers. Farmworkers would gradually reach just $12.50 an hour by 2024. Farmworkers would have a possibility of reaching $15.00 an hour by 2027, but only if recommended by certain government officials. Farmworker Justice was critical of this fundamentally unfair bill and signed on to a letter, led by the Comite de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agricolas (CATA), asking the New Jersey Senate not to take this step back for farmworkers’ rights. The New Jersey bill highlights the need for federal legislation to address the discriminatory exclusion of farmworkers from basic minimum wage and overtime protections guaranteed to other workers.

Worker Strike in California Results in Rollback of Pay Cuts

Last month, a worker walkout and protest resulted in the rollback of planned pay cuts for orange pickers in California. The United Farm Workers supported the walkout. The “Wonderful Halos” mandarin orange company had announced that the rate for filling a bin of oranges would be decreased by five dollars, to the detriment of many workers. The company restored the previous pay rate as a result of the protest. However, various other issues raised by workers remain unresolved, including uncompensated time. Many of the farmworkers were hired through third-party labor contractors. Under California law, growers and contractors are equally responsible for labor issues.

Shutdown Ended, But Another Shutdown Possible After February 15 Deadline

On January 25, President Trump announced an end to the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, which lasted 35 days, without getting any funding for the construction of a border “wall.” In late December, Trump had refused to sign spending bills that had been passed by Congress because they did not provide $5.7 billion in funds for this purpose. As a result, there was serious financial harm endured by many government workers who worked unpaid or were idled, as well as harm to the general population from curtailed government services.

The continuing resolution which re-opened the government runs out on February 15. Trump has threatened to trigger another government shutdown if a bipartisan conference which has been convened to discuss border security is unable to reach an agreement by that date. Trump has also suggested the possibility of declaring a national emergency in order to secure the funds for “wall” construction. It remains unclear whether there will be an agreement reached by the bipartisan conference by the deadline, whether there will be another government shutdown, and/or whether Trump will declare a national emergency to secure wall funding.

Update on Farmworker Health and Safety

WPS and CPA Rule Revisions Withdrawn by EPA

On January 28, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officially withdrew its proposed revision of certain protections in the Worker Protection Standard (WPS) and Certification of Pesticide Applicators (CPA) rule from review by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). As noted in previous updates, these two rules, which provide key safeguards for farmworkers from toxic pesticide exposures, were in danger of being weakened through rulemaking by the EPA. Last month, Acting EPA Administrator Wheeler committed in a letter to Senators that the agency would stop its efforts to roll back certain elements of the rules. The letter also stated that the EPA is still considering a potential revision to the Application Exclusion Zone (AEZ) provision of the WPS, which provides protection to workers and bystanders from off-target drift. FJ will continue to work to preserve this protection, including through the submission of comments once the proposed changes are published.

In the meantime, FJ, along with various partner organizations, is working to ensure passage of a bill to reauthorize the Pesticide Registration Improvement Act (PRIA), which includes key language protecting both the WPS and CPA rule. As stated by Senator Udall, “[t]here is no reason why we cannot act to provide a legally-binding solution that protects these rules and protects farmworkers. Congress should move quickly to resolve this issue and pass [the] worker-friendly PRIA agreement.”  

More States Intervene in Texas v. U.S. ACA Case

Last week, four more states - Iowa, Michigan, Colorado, and Nevada - motioned to intervene in Texas v. U.S. As a result, twenty states, led by California, now support the defense of the ACA in the lawsuit. An appeal in the fifth circuit is pending but a decision is expected later this year. In the meantime, the ACA remains in effect as the appeals process moves forward. More information about Texas v. U.S. can be found here and in previous FJ blogposts.

CMS Proposes 2020 Benefit and Payment Parameter Rule for ACA Exchanges

On January 17, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) published its proposed 2020 Benefit and Payment Parameter Rule. This rule, issued annually, establishes standards for the ACA exchanges. It impacts consumer access to health insurance plans and in-person assistance, as well as tax credits and cost-sharing. The 2020 proposed rule further reduces the role of navigators in ACA enrollment. It eliminates the requirement that navigators provide post-enrollment assistance, including appeals and exemptions applications, and referrals for tax assistance. The navigator training will also be reduced, eliminating required training on topics such as: outreach and education methods and strategies, providing linguistically and culturally appropriate services, and working effectively with limited English proficient, rural, and underserved populations. A complete analysis of the proposed rule can be found on the Health Affairs blog. A CMS fact sheet on the proposed rule can be found here. The comment period on the proposed rule ends February 19.