Farmworker Justice Update - 07/11/19

Year-Round H-2A Amendment Included in House DHS Appropriations Bill

On June 11, the House Appropriations Committee passed an H-2A year-round rider on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appropriations bill for FY 2020, via voice vote. Reps. Newhouse (R-WA) and Cuellar (D-TX) introduced the amendment, which allows H-2A workers to be admitted without regard to whether they provide labor or services that are of a temporary or seasonal nature. Reps. Roybal-Allard (D-CA), DeLauro (D-CT), Torres (D-CA), and Kaptur (D-OH) spoke in opposition to the amendment. FJ strongly opposes both the substance of this amendment and the method by which it was adopted. 

Given the contentiousness of the DHS appropriations bill, as well as the current Congressional schedule, the DHS appropriations bill is unlikely to be voted on by the full House before September. The Senate must also pass its own DHS appropriations bill. Therefore, it is unclear whether there will be a final DHS appropriations bill passed by both chambers by September 30, which is when FY 2019 funding is set to expire (with FY 2020 beginning on October 1, 2019). FJ is currently working alongside our allies in both the labor and immigration movements to ensure this harmful H-2A rider is not included in the final FY 2020 DHS appropriations bill. 

Sen. Paul Reintroduces H-2A Expansion Bill 

Last month, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) reintroduced the “Paperwork Reduction for Farmers and H-2A Modernization Act,” S. 1887. A companion bill, H.R. 3319, was introduced in the House by Rep. Kelly (R-MS) the same day. The bill currently has four co-sponsors in the House and no co-sponsors in the Senate. The bill is an updated version of a similarly named H-2A expansion bill that was introduced by Sen. Paul in the previous Congress. While the legislation is framed as a bill that would “streamline” the H-2A application process, it includes provisions that would fundamentally change the program, such as expanding H-2A to a variety of year-round industries, including dairy, equine, and seafood processing. The bill also includes a “safe harbor” provision insulating any employers who use third-party preparers from penalties for errors or omissions in their application. FJ opposes this bill. 

Farmworker Justice Freedom of Information Act Lawsuit

On June 28, Farmworker Justice filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for failure to comply with its obligation to disclose documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  FJ is co-counseling the case, Farmworker Justice v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, with Public Citizen. FJ has been seeking documents regarding the Trump Administration’s interagency task force on the H-2A agricultural guestworker program.  The task force met with agribusiness representatives and apparently recommended changes to the H-2A program regulations. 

Settlement Involving Florida Strawberry Farm that Discriminated against U.S. Workers

Last month, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a settlement agreement against H-2A employer Sam Williamson Farms Inc. (SFW), a strawberry farm in Dover, Florida. The DOJ’s investigation found that SFW had discriminated against U.S. workers for its strawberry harvesting, informing its existing U.S. workers that it would hire H-2A workers instead for its following season. SFW eventually hired more than 300 H-2A workers and no U.S. workers. Under the settlement, SFW must pay $60,000 in civil penalties and up to $85,000 in back pay to eligible U.S. workers. The investigation was carried out under the DOJ’s “Protecting U.S. Workers Initiative.” 

Article on Labor Trafficking in Agriculture 

A recent Texas Observer article details the abuse and horrific working and living conditions endured by agricultural workers who are victims of labor trafficking, including many who are in the country on H-2A visas. The article notes that though sex trafficking is a more well-known problem, labor trafficking is also widespread, especially in certain industries such as agriculture. The article highlights the specific vulnerability of H-2A workers, who are bound to an employer who controls their visa, housing and worksites. As stated by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) attorney Stacie Jonas, guestworkers are nervous about doing anything that might make them deportable or make it difficult for them to get another visa again in the future. 

Rep. Roybal-Allard Reintroduces Federal Bill to Protect Children Working in Agriculture 

Last month, Rep. Roybal-Allard (D-CA) introduced the “Children’s Act for Responsible Employment and Farm Safety of 2019” (CARE Act), H.R. 3394, which establishes protections for children working in agriculture. The bill has been introduced in past Congresses. The CARE Act would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in order to strengthen the provisions relating to child labor. While retaining exemptions for family farms, it would prohibit the employment of children under age fourteen (14). Fourteen (14) and fifteen (15) year-olds could be employed only for certain agriculture jobs, during limited shifts and outside of school hours. The bill also states that workers must be at least eighteen (18) years of age to perform hazardous tasks. Additionally, the bill requires data collection on work-related injuries, illness, and deaths of children under age 18 in agriculture, as well as an annual report by the Secretary of Labor.

New York Passes Landmark Farmworker Legislation 

Last month, the New York state legislature passed legislation that will significantly improve farmworkers’ labor rights. A version of the bill, entitled the “Farmworker Fair Labor Practices Act” had been proposed in the state legislature without achieving passage for over two decades. The final bill, which has been signed by Governor Cuomo, represents a compromise between labor groups and farm employers. The bill provides farmworkers with overtime pay, collective bargaining rights, unemployment insurance and expanded workers’ compensation. The bill, S.6578, states that farmworkers are entitled to form a union and engage in collective bargaining free from retaliation. In addition, a union can be certified as the bargaining representative based on “card check,” i.e., a majority of workers signed dues deduction authorization forms.  Allowing card check as an alternative to holding a formal representation election option can be helpful to reducing companies’ anti-union campaigns. The legislation also enables a union to obtain a decision from an arbitrator on the terms of a collective bargaining agreement if the company and union reach an impasse. This opportunity will reduce companies’ ability to refuse to bargain in good faith for the purpose of avoiding a contract. However, the final bill has language prohibiting strikes, based on farmers’ assertions that their impact could be severe during peak seasons. As noted in previous FJ updates, the state appellate court in New York recently declared that a state labor law excluding farmworkers from the right to organize and collectively bargain violates the state constitution’s guarantee of that right.

The bill also establishes overtime pay for farmworkers over 60 hours as well as the option of either a day of rest each week or receiving overtime pay for the seventh day of work. The original bill called for overtime pay over 40 hours. The 60-hour threshold is still a significant improvement, however, as New York farmworkers previously had no right to overtime pay. Only a handful of states in the country offer overtime pay to farmworkers, despite the fact that farmworkers often work more than 40 hour weeks. This is due to a discriminatory and historical exclusion of farmworkers from federal labor legislation. You can read more about this exclusion and a proposed federal bill to remedy it on the FJ website. FJ’s President Bruce Goldstein testified in support of farmworkers’ rights at a NY State Senate hearing at the request of the bill’s lead sponsor, Senator Jessica Ramos of Queens, NY.  Congratulations to Sen. Ramos, and the many coalition members who fought this struggle, including the Rural and Migrant Ministry, Worker Justice Center of New York, NY ACLU, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, the NY State AFL-CIO, the Hispanic Federation, and many others.

Update on Farmworker Health and Safety

House Bill Calls for Federal Protections against Heat Stress 

Yesterday (July 10), Reps. Chu (D-CA) and Grijalva (D-AZ) introduced the “Asuncion Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act,” H.R. 3668. The bill is named after a farmworker who tragically died from heat stress. It calls on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue a federal standard on the prevention of excessive heat in the workplace, including the provision of adequate shade, water and rest breaks, as well as information and training on heat stress prevention and symptoms. Unfortunately, too many employers do not offer reasonable protections against heat stress and many farmworkers are reluctant to speak up about unsafe conditions. Climate change is further exacerbating the problem, as temperatures continue to rise nationwide. FJ supports this bill.

FJ President Bruce Goldstein spoke during a press conference on the bill’s introduction about the importance of these common sense measures for protecting farmworkers. Earlier today, the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections held a hearing entitled “From the Fields to the Factories: Preventing Workplace Injury and Death from Excessive Heat,” which can be viewed here. Arturo Rodriguez, former President of the UFW, was one of the witnesses at the hearing and discussed the impact of this occupational risk on farmworkers. As mentioned in previous FJ updates, FJ joined Public Citizen and the UFW, along with a coalition of over 200 individuals and groups, in filing a petition to OSHA last year asking for a federal standard to protect workers from heat stress. OSHA has not yet responded to the petition. There is currently no federal heat standard to provide workers with protections from dangerous heat conditions. 

Senate Bill Seeks to Protect Farmworkers from Smoke Exposure

Last month, Senator Merkley (D-OR), introduced “The Farmworker Smoke Protection Act of 2019,” S. 1815. During wildfires, farmworkers often have to work quickly in smoky conditions to harvest crops and protect them from smoke damage, and many do so without proper respiratory protection. The bill would help ensure that farmworkers are protected from hazardous wildfire smoke by requiring employers to provide N95 or other NIOSH-certified respiratory protection to farmworkers who may be exposed. The use of the equipment would be mandatory when the air quality reaches a dangerous level. The bill also requires training and education materials on how to properly use the equipment to be made available to farmworkers, in a language that they understand. Additionally, the bill directs OSHA to develop and publish an official standard to protect employees affected by exposure to wildfire smoke. FJ supports this bill.

Two Mass Pesticide Exposure Incidents Within Two Weeks in Fresno County  

On June 18, approximately 60 workers were affected by a pesticide exposure incident in Dinuba, California. A pesticide that was being sprayed in a nearby orchard drifted into the vineyard where the workers were. Three of the workers had to be hospitalized and the rest were decontaminated on site by emergency responders. Less than two weeks later, on June 27, approximately 75 workers were exposed to pesticides, also in Fresno County, and also leading to the hospitalization of three people. This second incident also seems to have involved drift. Investigations are still underway for both incidents. 

Article on Valley Fever in Farmworker Communities 

A recent Civil Eats article explores the prevalence of valley fever in California’s farmworker communities. Valley fever is a chronic illness caused by a soil fungus called cocci when it becomes airborne, which causes flu-like symptoms and can be fatal. Cases of the disease increased by 10% in California between 2017 and 2018. New cases are especially concentrated in the San Joaquin valley, where many of the state’s farmworkers live. The causes and impact of the disease are still being studied, but working outside and living in areas with high particle pollution (which is often exacerbated by agricultural practices) seem to increase the risk. African-Americans and Latinos seem to be more likely to have severe symptoms. Additionally, climate change is believed to be expanding the territory where the cocci fungus can be found, which will likely lead to an increase in the number of cases not just in California but in other states as well. 

Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Hears Arguments in Texas v. US

On July 9, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in Texas v. US. The panel of judges will decide whether to uphold a lower district court ruling that deemed the ACA unconstitutional after Congress eliminated the tax penalty in 2017. The ACA is being defended in court by 20 states and the District of Columbia, led by California Attorney General Becerra, along with the House of Representatives. If the ACA is struck down, an estimated 20 million people could lose health coverage and many of the health and consumer protections, including pre-existing coverage protections, would no longer be in effect. FJ will share updates on this case as the appeals process continues.

California Expands Medi-Cal Coverage to Undocumented Young Adults

On June 27, Governor Newsom signed California’s 2019-2020 budget. The budget expands Medi-Cal coverage (California’s Medicaid program) to undocumented young adults up to age 26. In 2015, Medi-Cal expanded coverage to undocumented children (0-19 years old). In addition to expanding Medi-Cal coverage, the budget also expands health insurance premium support for individuals and families enrolled in Covered California (California’s health insurance marketplace) and reinstates an individual mandate penalty. More information about the California 2019-2020 budget can be found here.

FJ’s Illustrated Diabetes Brochure for Farmworkers

FJ is excited to share its newest publication for farmworkers, “Life of the Party: Making Healthy Choices with Diabetes” available in English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole on our website. It is a comic style brochure that provides information about how to shop for food and make healthy food choices with diabetes. It encourages community members with diabetes to not hide away from being part of community celebrations. FJ is working with our partners across the country to promote diabetes education and testing among farmworker communities. Contact Alexis Guild at [email protected] with any questions, feedback, or for more information.