Union Challenges Trump Plan to Ditch Farmworker Wage Survey

Workers picking strawberries in Salinas, California. (Courthouse News photo via Pixabay)

(CN) — The Trump administration’s decision to abruptly discontinue a 110-year-old survey that helps set minimum wage for immigrant farmworkers will lead to pay cuts for millions of U.S. and guest agricultural laborers across the country, a farmworkers union claims in a new lawsuit.

“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 in a statement Wednesday.

Romero also claims the president will personally benefit from the decision by suppressing the wages of field workers at his vineyard in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Fresno, California, on Tuesday night challenges the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sept. 30 decision to end data collection for the biannual Agricultural Labor Survey, also called the Farm Labor Survey, which first started in 1910.

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. That data is used to calculate the U.S. Department of Labor’s Adverse Effect Wage Rates, a minimum wage that must be paid to guest farmworkers under the H-2A temporary agricultural workers program.

Without the Labor Department’s minimum wage for temporary workers, farms could pay state or federal minimum wage, resulting in pay cuts of over 5% for workers in California, up to 27% in Oregon and 46% in Idaho, according to the lawsuit.

In its Sept. 30 decision, the USDA said it found other data sources can be used to replace the information collected in the biannual survey. It lists six other potential sources: the Agricultural Resources Management Survey, Census of Agriculture, American Community Survey, Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, National Economic Accounts, and the National Agricultural Workers Survey.

The USDA said its National Agricultural Statistics Service would not be collecting farmworker wage data in October or publishing a report in November as previously planned.

In its 26-page lawsuit, United Farm Workers — the largest agricultural union in the U.S. — claims the USDA failed to provide an adequate justification, consider all issues relevant to its decision or provide notice and an opportunity for public comment as required by the Administrative Procedure Act.

“While the notice asserts that alternative data sources can substitute for [Farm Labor Survey] data, it provides no explanation for how these other surveys will replace the many unique attributes of FLS data,” the union says in its complaint.

One source the USDA identified as a potential alternative — the National Agricultural Workers Survey – relies on FLS data as a “crucial methodological input” and is not as comprehensive as the FLS, according to the lawsuit.

The union says the USDA failed to address the impact its decision will have on the Labor Department’s ability to calculate minimum wage for guest farmworkers and the use of that survey data to guide policy decisions for other federal, state and local agencies.

In 2010, the Labor Department found that relying on other sources instead of FLS data to calculate minimum wage for guest farmworkers in 2009 resulted in more than one dollar less per hour, a 11.2% cut compared to the $9.04 wage calculated based on FLS data.

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.

In a statement Wednesday, the union said “already low-paid” farmworkers are considered essential employees during the Covid-19 pandemic and required to toil in the fields. Despite putting their health and safety on the line to help feed America, the Trump administration is attempting to cut their pay, the union claims.

“The Trump administration has corrupted a fundamental principle of the H-2A agricultural guest worker program by making it impossible for federal officials to protect American worker pay from being depressed by an influx of foreign guest workers who have fewer legal rights,” UFW Foundation executive director Diana Tellefson Torres said in a statement Wednesday. “This is happening in the middle of a pandemic that is already devastating rural farmworker communities.”

The union seeks a preliminary and permanent injunction to block USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue from discontinuing the biannual farm labor survey.

Attorney Joseph Taylor Gooch of the firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr in San Francisco represents the union.

The USDA did not immediately return an email request for comment Wednesday morning.

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