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January 2016, Volume 22, Number 1

Northwest, Midwest, Northeast

The Environmental Protection Agency on September 28, 2015 released the first update to its farm worker protection standards since 1992. The updated regulations bar hired workers under 18 from using pesticides and require that farm workers be trained annually in pesticide safety, down from every five years.

A study released in October 2015 found that agricultural workers had 18.4 acute injuries and illnesses for each 100,000 full-time equivalent employees, 23 times the rate for workers in other industries, which was 0.8. The data are from NIOSH's Sentinel Event Notification System for Occupational Risk-Pesticides program and cover 11 states between 2007 and 2010.

Washington. The Washington Farm Labor Association, which brought over 6,000 H-2A workers into the state in 2015, reportedly coached its employer members to report hourly rather than piece-rate wages and to report not providing housing to members of workers' families. Up to 10 percent of survey respondents may have followed WAFLA advice, so that the average wage for harvesting Fuji, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smith apples changed from $20 a bin in 2014 to $9.47 an hour in 2015, the state's minimum wage. The piece rate for picking other varieties of apples was $20 to $25 a bin.

The Washington Department of Labor and Industries (L & I) argues that farm management firms should have labor contractor licenses. The state Supreme Court will decide Saucedo v. John Hancock Insurance in which workers allege that they were threatened by foremen at three Yakima orchards managed by Northwest Management and Realty Services, which did not have an L & I license.

A federal judge who awarded $1 million to 722 workers ruled that landowners John Hancock and Texas Municipal Plans Consortium were liable because they should have ensured that Northwest had all required licenses.

There were 167 farm and forestry labor contractors registered with L & I at the end of 2015 who had paid a $35 annual licensing fee and posted a bond of $5,000 to $20,000, depending on the number of workers they hire.

Oregon. A third of the 25,000-acre Boardman Tree Farm owned by GreenWood Resources was sold to California-based Willow Creek Dairy, which plans plant corn and alfalfa on the 7,300 acres to help feed 8,000 cows at Willow Creek. GreenWood plants hybrid poplar trees that reach maturity in 12 years and are sold for sawlogs, pulp and biofuel.

Arizona. Yuma is a city of 100,000 whose agriculture depends on Colorado River water. Yuma often has the highest unemployment rate in the US, over 20 percent, in part because the area's mostly legal farm workers file for benefits after the October-March season is finished.

Midwest. Midwestern agriculture is dominated by dairy, corn, soybeans and hogs, with dairy more important in Wisconsin and fruits and vegetables more important in Minnesota. All measures of farm worker employment show growth, but in different sectors.

For example, the QCEW or unemployment insurance data show that average full-time equivalent employment rose by 36 percent between 2002 and 2014, with livestock accounting for most of this growth. CPS (household) data find hired farm worker employment rose 30 percent in the Midwest, as employers hired more crop workers. A top-down estimate dividing farm labor expenses by the average hourly earnings of farm workers suggests that farm employment rose by 23 percent between 2002 and 2012. Finally, the USDA's Farm Labor Survey shows that direct-hire farm worker employment rose five percent.

CPS data on the 107,000 hired workers in the Midwest in 2013-14 found they had an average age of 35 and were mostly male (84 percent) and US-born (85 percent). A quarter of these workers did not finish high school, while two-thirds were high school graduates or had some college.

There are differences between crop and livestock workers. Those employed in livestock were younger, not married, and more likely to be foreign born than those employed in crops or ag services. Higher proportions were Hispanic and had lower levels of education. QCEW data find that real wages in livestock, where immigrant farm workers are most concentrated, rose at a slower rate than in crops and services.

These data suggest that the growth of the immigrant workforce in the Midwest has been concentrated in livestock, where fewer and larger hog and dairy farms use networks to bring additional migrants into their workforces. Dairy farmers in Wisconsin in a 2013 survey reported that half of their employees were immigrants, and that hourly dairy wages of $8 to $10 an hour were less than the average $11 reported by all farmers.

Maine. Maine is the oldest (median age 44) and whitest (94 percent) US state. However, Lewiston, the state's second-largest city with 36,000 residents, has been transformed by over 6,000 refugees from Somalia and elsewhere. The focus of local industries have shifted from textiles to health care. Foreign-born residents account for most welfare costs. In December 2015, the incumbent mayor, who campaigned against the welfare that many of the refugees receive, was re-elected to a third term.