Farmworker Justice Update: 09/27/19

Farmworker Justice and Other Advocates Submitted Comments to the DOL Regarding Proposed H-2A Program Changes

           On September 24, Farmworker Justice and many other organizations and advocates responded to the Department of Labor’s (DOL) published request for comments to proposed changes to the H-2A temporary foreign agricultural worker program (the notice published in the Federal Register in July). The DOL proposed many changes to the H-2A program, including a new calculation for wage rates, shifting some transportation costs to workers, expanding the program to pine straw and reforestation workers, weakening recruitment requirements for U.S. workers and allowing employer applications with staggered entry dates for guestworkers, among many other proposed changes.

Office of Foreign Labor Certification (OFLC) Released H-2A Quarterly Report

            OFLC’s third quarter report on the H-2A program is now available. While the FY 2018-’19 growth rate for the third quarter was slower than that from FY 2017-’18, DOL still certified a record 82,776 H-2A workers for this quarter. Theories for the slowing growth rate of the program include that use of the program is maturing and that this was a particularly tough harvest year.   

DOL Released Final Rule on Their Proposal to Switch From Newspapers to Online Recruitment

On September 20, DOL published its final rule on modernizing recruitment requirements in the Federal Register. In order to qualify for H-2A workers, an employer must demonstrate that no U.S. workers are available for the job, and as part of this process, DOL has certain recruitment requirement that employers must fulfill. The new rule switches from a requirement that employers advertise available positions in a newspaper to an electronic system managed by DOL. The agency will publish employer job notices on their new online system, SeasonalJobs.dol.gov. The agency will also instruct state workforce agencies to pass the job openings to organizations that provide employment and training services to workers who are likely to apply for the jobs, and/or to place written notices at physical locations where such workers are likely to gather. A concern with the new requirement is that U.S. workers may not know about the online system, so the DOL must reach out to the farmworker communities letting them know of the change. The rule will go into effect on October 21.

Senate Confirmed Anti-Worker Secretary of Labor

            On September 26, the Senate confirmed a new Secretary of Labor, Eugene Scalia. He has come under fire throughout his confirmation process for being pro-business and anti-worker. He has a history as an attorney representing companies seeking to avoid liability for violating employment and health and safety laws and seeking to minimize the protections under those laws. An agency intended to protect workers is now directed by an individual with a commitment to business’s positions regarding employment at the expense of workers’ law. The Senate confirmed Scalia on a 53-44 vote.   

A Federal Judge Put a Temporary Stay on a DOL Ordered 50% Wage Increase for Blueberry Pickers

On September 5, a federal judge blocked a wage increase that had been ordered by the DOL for Washington blueberry pickers. The employees at Zirkle farm were to receive a wage increase from 50 to 75 cents per pound. Zirkle sued in the U.S. Court of Eastern Washington, claiming that the wage increase was too much of a burden, and it would have to leave blueberries in the field and eliminate hand picking from future harvests, which would put farmworkers out of work. The injunction will stay in place until the conclusion of the trial.    

Update on Farmworker Health and Safety

After Years of Decreased USDA Oversight, Rural Public Housing is Falling Apart

On September 23, NBC News released a story detailing the crumbling conditions of the Okeechobee Center in Belle Glade, Florida. The public housing is meant for farmworkers and falls under USDA jurisdiction. However, the building is in decrepit condition with mold, holes in the walls and ceilings, and insects and rodent infestations. Over the years, USDA oversight has loosened as priorities and resources shifted away from the housing inspection program. The property managers submitted a plan earlier this year to the agency on how they would improve the conditions, but part of the plan included a rent increase on the residents. Farmworkers put food on America’s table and deserve to have safe, clean housing for themselves and their families.   

Pesticide Exposure Makes Around One Hundred Workers Sick in California Fields

            This June, around 100 California farmworkers were exposed to pesticides in two separate incidents. While the number of affected workers is high, what is even more troubling is the ongoing fear that workers feel. When they are exposed, many workers feel that they will die, and they worry that the effects will be permanent. In California, safety policy enforcement is up to the counties, and incidents rates are going up. There was a 10% increase from 2014 to 2015 as the latest published numbers.