During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020, then-President Trump implemented a freeze on the wages of foreign farm laborers under the H-2A program. Farmworkers were performing dangerous and vital work, and at the time were declared “essential workers.” Yet they were given little in the way of protection from the virus and so the idea of freezing their wages was met with outrage. Thanks to some lawsuits, writes Melissa Montalvo of the Fresno Bee, that freeze should now be over.
Due to a continuous dearth of agricultural labor, American farm owners have had to look outside the country’s borders for workers. One of the legal methods of hiring foreign labor is through the H-2A program for temporary agricultural workers. This enables farm owners to apply for foreign labor. The H-2A program does have certain protections built in, like requiring that employers pay for transportation and housing, and it does set a wage minimum. (It also has major problems, including “rampant and systemic” violations of the rights of both immigrant and domestic workers, according to Farmworker Justice.)
H-2A wages are set through a labyrinthine system that relies on a survey of American farmworkers. It’s designed, sort of, to set a minimum wage for foreign workers that’s high enough that employers aren’t enticed to hire foreign workers over Americans. It doesn’t really work, since employers have to pay stuff like social security and unemployment for American workers and not H-2A workers, but this is how the H-2A program has operated for years. The Trump administration had wanted to cut H-2A wages, which had been heavily lobbied for and by large agricultural interests.
Trump’s USDA succeeded in its quest in November 2020 by simply eliminating the survey and freezing H-2A wages at their 2019 levels. This amounted to a significant wage reduction. Organizations like United Farm Workers and Farmworker Justice sued, stating that the wage freeze was unfair for a whole mess of procedural reasons (like not appropriately lining up wages with market realities), but with the basic point that the wage freeze was unfair and hurting people. Farmworker Justice estimated that, with the freeze, farmworkers would lose an average of $170 million per year over the next ten years.
Trump’s wage freeze was overturned in December 2021 and the USDA conducted its regular survey, which will result in raises for farmworkers this year—by about six percent on average, nationally. In California, one of the most important agricultural states, the hourly pay rate for H-2A workers was $14.77 in 2020 and $16.05 in 2021. In 2022, the state’s H-2A workers will see a $2.74 hourly jump from the 2020 rate for an hourly pay of $17.51.
Organizations that applauded the wage freeze, like the American Farm Bureau, noted that these raises will mean that H-2A workers will receive a slightly higher increase in pay compared to workers in other American industries. Of course, H-2A workers also tend to work in harder and more dangerous conditions than most other workers. The field suffers from a lack of labor and yet the job of a farmworker is declared essential.