Judge Orders Trump Administration to Reinstate Farmworker Wage Survey

A farmworker covers his face as he works at a flower farm April 15, 2020, in Santa Paula, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) — Likely preventing pay cuts to the thousands of U.S. farmworkers toiling through the pandemic, a federal judge on Wednesday squashed the Trump administration’s bid to halt a longstanding survey that determines the minimum wage for immigrant farmworkers.

Siding with the nation’s largest farmworker union, U.S. District Judge Dale Drozd agreed the Trump administration hastily postponed the Farm Labor Survey without a clear replacement. 

Drozd ruled the survey is essential to setting a fair pay rate and ordered the U.S. Department of Agriculture to continue with the next planned survey to prevent an avalanche of future labor lawsuits.  

“Because the Farm Labor Survey ‘is the only timely and reliable source of information on the size of the farmworker population’ legal consequences would flow from an inaccurate tabulation of wage rates,” Drozd said in a ruling issued late Wednesday.

Last month, the USDA unceremoniously announced that it wouldn’t collect data for the November 2020 survey, halting a procedure that started in 1910. The brief 1-page announcement said the industry and the public could rely on “other data sources” instead.

The biannual survey taken each April and October is used to pinpoint the true size of the agricultural workforce and the hours put in by all workers on 35,000 farms and ranches. 

The information is relayed to the Department of Labor, which then sets a prevailing wage and adverse effect wage rate, which determines the pay for approximately 92% of the country’s immigrant farmworkers.

Critics blasted the decision and warned it would lead to massive pay cuts for workers making near or below state minimum wages during the coronavirus pandemic.

Hoping to protect the paychecks of hundreds of thousands of workers, California-based United Farm Workers sued the USDA and Secretary Sonny Perdue last month in federal court in Fresno.

The union argued the void left by the shuttered survey could lead to 5% pay cuts for its California workers, 27% in Oregon and nearly 50% in Idaho. It claims the Trump administration didn’t give the public a proper opportunity to contest the decision or give rationale for the controversial postponement.

“How can Donald Trump justify slashing pay for all farm workers in the U.S., which means cutting wages by up to a quarter or a half in some states?” United Farm Workers president Teresa Romero said on Oct. 14.

The United States has approximately 2.5 million farmworkers, many of whom receive assistance from the government or the United Farm Workers Foundation, a charitable arm of the union which has distributed 189,000 meals and over 27,000 food boxes to California farmworkers in 2020.

During oral arguments, the union said the USDA clearly ignored the impact the decision would have on the core of the popular H-2A temporary agricultural workers program.

The Trump administration countered it wasn’t mandated by Congress to collect the critical information and noted the survey was cancelled previously in 2007 and 2011 during budget crunches without public comment.

But Drozd, an Obama appointee, decided the survey was too important for the federal government to hastily abandon.

“As plaintiffs note, defendants’ cursory, one-page decision provides no indication that the USDA considered the impact on farmworker wages caused by its decision to eliminate the [survey],” the ruling states.

Along with granting the union’s motions for temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, the judge derided the “brevity and lack of detail” provided by the defendants’ witnesses.

Drozd was ultimately peeved by an admission from a senior member of the Department of Labor that the USDA gave it just 16 days-notice regarding the decision to abandon the survey.

“It seems apparent based upon a fair reading of the Brian Pasternak declaration that this was not a fully coordinated action between the Department of Labor and defendant USDA, and that the Department of Labor is now scrambling,” Drozd highlights in footnotes.

The USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Wednesday.

In the 28-page ruling, Drozd orders the Trump administration to return to the status quo. The most recent survey results, released in May, reported 688,000 farmworkers during one week in April were paid $15.07 hourly on average, a 9% increase over the previous year.

During his time in office, Secretary Perdue has advocated for lowering the adverse effect wage rate that largely determines how much farmworkers get paid state-by-state. In his submitted declaration, Pasternak said the Department of Labor is in the process of altering the adverse effect wage process and will publish new rules by the end of the year.

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