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April 2016, Volume 22, Number 2

Wages; H-2A; H-2B

Is there a shortage of seasonal crop workers? Wages do not suggest a shortage. The average hourly earnings of US field workers were $11.43 (USDA FLS) and $11.68 (CPS) between 2013 and 2015, compared with $14.38 for all occupations (CPS). However, real farm worker earnings rose about half as fast as nonfarm earnings between 2000-02 and 2013-15, eight compared to 15 percent. Livestock earnings are about the same as crop worker earnings, $11.50 an hour, and they rose slower than crop earnings over the past decade.

The fastest-rising wages were for crop agricultural managers and supervisors, which rose 25 percent to $20.68 between 2000-02 and 2013-15, and 35 percent for livestock agricultural managers and supervisors to $19.60. If farm operators rely on managers and supervisors to find workers, they could be attempting to pay more to supervisors to induce them to find and retain workers.

H-2A. Farmers in spring 2016 complained that DOL was slow to certify their need to hire H-2A workers. FLC Fresh Harvest as well as Oxnard strawberry growers Ito, Reiter and Harvest Breeze sued DOL and other federal agencies in March 2016, alleging that they needed to supplement their workforces with up to 20 percent foreign workers. DOL said the suits were moot because the certifications had been approved, albeit late.

US workers who believe that employers discriminate against them in order to hire foreign workers can complain to DOJ's Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices (OSC). Workers who are not hired or fired by employers often complain to EEOC, which can refer them to OSC.

Some employers are charged with discrimination because they use an outsourcer to hire H-2A workers to replace US workers. If the employer knows that the outsourcer's business model to save money is based on guest workers, there may be discrimination.

Estopy Farms, which harvests cotton in Texas and Mexico, was charged with discriminating against US workers by being certified and hiring H-2A workers in 2010 and not hiring a qualified US worker to operate cotton harvesting machines. Estopy was fined the maximum $3,200.

H-2B. Is there a shortage of workers to fill low-wage nonfarm jobs? Daniel Costa in "The H-2B temporary foreign worker program" examined the 15 occupations that were most often certified to be filled with foreign workers, and found no wage growth in them between 2004 and 2014. Indeed, wages declined in some of the occupations, such as nonfarm animal caretakers.

The H-2B program requires employers to have their need for foreign guest workers certified by the US Department of Labor, which means that employers must try to recruit US workers at a DOL-approved hourly wage before receiving certification to hire H-2B guest workers. Costa found that DOL often approves wages that are $2 to $4 an hour lower than the local average wage for the job in the Occupational Employment Statistics survey. Employers can save 20 to 40 percent on wages with H-2B workers if they use a private wage survey to determine average wages rather than the OES.

The 2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act that funds the federal government for FY16 included an increase in the number of H-2B visas available by not counting returning workers against the 66,000 a year cap. Most H-2B visa holders are in the US for 10 months. After three years of US employment, they must return to their countries of origin for at least three months. The exemption, spearheaded by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) to protect her state's seafood industry, is expected to increase the number of H-2B workers in the US up to 250,000.

Employers are to report workers who worked for them in FY13, 14, or 15 so that they do not count against the 66,000 a year cap.

Costa, Daniel. 2016. The H-2B temporary foreign worker program. Economic Policy Institute.

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