Farms are struggling, but wage cuts have plenty of opponents.

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Even in times of crisis, people need to eat—but that doesn’t mean the farms that produce our food are immune from the ripple effect of the coronavirus pandemic. Quite the opposite, actually: The closures of public dining spaces like restaurants and cafeterias have upended the usual supply chains, and rerouting them to fit demand is difficult—leaving plenty of food going to waste, upsettingly at a time when many Americans are struggling to feed themselves. Adding to the problem are COVID-19-related labor shortages—both domestic for those affected by the illness and foreign for migrants struggling to get into the country.

To deal with these issues, the USDA has been offering support to farmers such as direct payments, loan assistance, and relaxed regulations—including working directly with the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to attempt to keep a steady flow of migrant workers into the country to prevent further labor shortages. But at a time when more labor is needed and millions of Americans are out of work, a new plan purportedly being discussed to save farms money is drawing some scrutiny: lowering worker wages.

Migrant Farm Workers in Strawberry fields
Credit: Mark Miller Photos/Getty Images

On Friday evening, NPR reported White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue were considering plans to lower the minimum wages for “H-2 workers,” named after the visa these laborers use to enter the country for seasonal agricultural work. The minimum wage for H-2 workers is set by the federal government so that temporary foreign labor doesn’t undercut the domestic labor market (despite the fact that American interest in farm work is low to begin with).

But as NPR pointed out, looking for ways to allow the lowering of migrant worker wages is a solution that makes multiple sides of the argument unhappy: Clearly, existing laborers don’t want to take a pay cut at a time when their services are more essential than ever; meanwhile, protectionists believe further lowering wages will increase the number of foreign workers as Americans become even less interested in doing this work than before.

And yet, according to the non-profit Farmworker Justice, changes to this “Adverse Effect Wage Rate” are far from unprecedented. “The Bush Administration changed the formula for calculating this wage rate resulting in an average decrease of over $1/hr (and up to $2/hr in some places),” the group writes. “The Obama Administration's regulations restored the previous wage rate formula.”

And for now, NPR only says that the White House is looking into it. The plan appears to not yet be set in stone. A White House official was quoted as saying, “The administration is considering all policy options during this unprecedented crisis to ensure our great farmers are protected, and President Trump has done and will do everything he can to support their vital mission.”