Judge Blocks Federal Wage Freeze on Farmworkers

Farmworkers weed wine-grape plants. (Jackie Johnston / The Associated Press)

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) — Farm workers won an eleventh-hour reprieve from a Department of Labor rule that would freeze their wages for the next two years. 

The new rule published by the Labor Department last month locks in at 2019 levels the minimum wage employers must pay foreign agricultural workers with H-2A visas, known as the adverse effect wage rate.  

Beginning in 2023, the Labor Department also seeks to tie future wage increases to the generic employment cost index instead of relying on the Farm Labor Survey, causing wages to rise at an even slower rate.

But U.S. District Judge Dale Drozd blocked the rule from taking effect in a ruling Wednesday because the department failed to justify its desire to freeze wages at below-market rate and did not adequately study whether the rule would also lead to wage stagnation among U.S. farmworkers. 

The rule is currently being fought in court by the nation’s largest agricultural union, United Farm Workers. 

Their lawsuit follows a successful challenge to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s move to postpone the Farm Labor Survey this November, which determines the AEWR, or minimum wage for immigrant farmworkers.

In his 39-page ruling, Drozd noted that California farmworkers, already earning a subsistence income, would be paid $0.81 less per hour under the rule, and that laborers in Oregon and Washington would be paid $77.40 less per month.

“Reducing farmworkers wages by approximately four or five percent would therefore clearly cause substantial harm to plaintiffs’ members and their families. Farmworkers who already struggle to provide for the necessities of life will find that this wage depression will only place further financial strain on their ability to obtain food, shelter, and other necessities,” Drozd wrote, citing declarations filed by UFW President Teresa Romero and UFW Foundation Executive Director Diana Tellefson Torres.  

“Many of plaintiffs’ members, and other farmworkers across the United States, already struggle to pay for necessities such as shelter and medical care and many farmworkers suffer with food insecurity and must rely on emergency food programs.”

In arguing that Drozd should allow the rule to take effect immediately, the government tried to blame the union for filing their lawsuit at the last minute.  But Drozd said the time crunch is squarely the fault of the government, which created the problem by trying to eschew this year’s Farm Labor Survey.

Drozd said he would preserve the status quo until the government can update its Adverse Effect Wage Rate data. The Farm Labor Report is expected to be published on Feb. 11, 2021, and Drozd said he expects the Labor Department to set the 2021 minimum wage rate for immigration farm laborers within 30 days of its publication.

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