Even under a new administration, the new rules for how H-2A workers' wages are calculated will take time to undo.

By Jelisa Castrodale
November 13, 2020
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In April, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue started considering how to help U.S. farmers who were already struggling in the early days of the pandemic. One of their suggestions was "reforming" the H-2A program, which is a euphemistic way of describing cutting the wages of the more than 200,000 foreign-born workers who come to the United States to temporarily work on farms.

Fast forward seven months and the Department of Labor has run with that suggestion and finalized new rules that will freeze the minimum wages of the farmworkers who are in this country on H-2A visas. NPR reports that one of the biggest changes is how these hourly figures are calculated in the first place.

Farm laborers from Fresh Harvest working with an H-2A visa harvest romaine lettuce on a machine with heavy plastic dividers that separate workers from each other on April 27, 2020 in Greenfield, California.
| Credit: Brent Stirton / Staff/Getty Images

Previously, the Department of Labor calculated H-2A workers' hourly wages by surveying their employers to determine what they pay their U.S.-born workers. It then uses a complicated methodology to establish the Adverse Effect Wage—meaning it cannot and does not have an adverse effect on the wages of U.S. workers—and sets a state-by-state hourly minimum for H-2A farmworkers.

Because there is an overall shortage of farmworkers, the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) has increased slightly more than the rate of inflation, and some employers have complained about it. That probably contributed to the Trump administration's decision to cancel the survey of employers that was used to calculate the AEWR. Then last week, it decided to freeze the wages of H-2A workers for the next two years. In 2023, when their hourly rates could again be adjusted, their wages will be tied to the Department of Labor's more generic Occupational Employment Statistics instead of by surveying other farmworkers. 

According to Modern Farmer, this change will allow their employers to hang on to an estimated $170 million that would have otherwise gone to H-2A farmworkers. (One of the employers who could benefit from these new rules is the Trump Winery. The Charlottesville, Virginia winery—which is owned by Eric Trump—submitted paperwork to hire 23 H-2A employees last year at a rate of $12.25 per hour, the state's required minimum wage for foreign-born farmworkers).

These changes have been criticized by a number of advocacy organizations. "This is absolutely a wage cut for migrants who are H-2A farmworkers,” Daniel Costa, the director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute said. “H-2A farmworkers will not benefit from any natural wage growth that occurs for three years—during what farm owners are saying is a severe labor shortage, which is exactly when you would expect wages to grow in a free market.”

In a press release, Farmworker Justice slammed the administration's "unconscionable" decision to further reduce the wages of an already underpaid category of workers. "Farmworkers are among the lowest-paid workers in the nation, generally earning poverty-level wages, but this policy will stop the modest progress that many farmworkers have experienced recently," the organization's president Bruce Goldstein said. 

The new restrictions go into effect on December 21. It has been noted that President-elect Joe Biden could un-freeze the H-2A workers' wages, but it could take as long as another year to undo the current administration's policy changes.