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April 2018, Volume 24, Number 2
Midwest, Northwest, Northeast
Wisconsin. Fewer than five percent of the nine million US dairy cows are now milked by robots, but in 2019 the share may rise to 25 percent. Walk-up milking robots that feed cows who enter can milk 60 cows a day, so that a 300-cow dairy could do its milking with five robots that cost $200,000 each.
The New York Times reported January 29, 2018 on the debate over whether children should be allowed to operate machinery on their family's farm. Federal law allows children of any age to " work at any time in any job" on their parents' farms, and efforts to restrict younger children from operating machinery on relatives' farms were dropped after protests. Children as young as five operate equipment on Wisconsin dairy farms, where there have been several tragic accidents.
New Jersey. Governor Phil Murphy proposed raising the state's minimum wage from $8.60 in 2018 to $15 and introducing mandatory sick pay, prompting farmers to call for an agricultural exemption from the higher minimum wage.
New Jersey blueberries were worth $66 million in 2015 and tomatoes worth $52 million were the vegetable with the highest sales. Labor costs are a third of variable production costs for blueberries and tomatoes. Farmers said that a near doubling of the minimum wage would adversely affect their competitiveness.
Vermont. Migrant Justice, which promotes "worker-led social responsibility" on Vermont dairy farms, won the Cesar Chavez human and civil rights award given by the National Education Association in 2017. Migrant Justice began a "Milk with Dignity" campaign in 2014 to persuade Vermont's largest milk buyers to demand improved labor conditions in their supply chains, especially Ben and Jerry's, which has been owned by Unilever since 2000.
Migrant Justice says that many of the hired workers on Vermont dairies are from Chiapas, Mexico. Ben and Jerry's on October 3, 2017 signed an agreement with Migrant Justice requiring the farms that provide Ben and Jerry's with milk to give their workers at least eight hours of rest between shifts and a day off each week.
Kansas. Fullmer Cattle Company in Syracuse was charged in March 2018 with slavery after paying Mexican workers who were smuggled into the US $10 an hour, but deducting the $1,300 paid to the smuggler. Fullmer, which also operates a used car business, denies the workers' charges, saying they reflect a disgruntled employee who has been fired.
Que Fullmer was found in 1998 to have workers in "economic slavery" in Chino, California. Fullmer pleaded guilty in 1999 to a felony count of harboring and concealing immigrants in the country illegally and was sentenced to six months of home detention, a $10,000 fine and ordered to perform 500 hours of community service.
Texas. Houston is recovering from Hurricane Harvey while Texas is trying to clamp down on unauthorized workers, forcing construction firms to raise wages to attract and retain workers. An estimated 30 percent of Houston construction workers are unauthorized.
New Mexico. Farm labor contractor WKI Outsourcing Solutions agreed to provide workers to five growers, and tried to avoid hiring US workers in order to employ H-2A workers. DOL found that only WKI was liable for not hiring the US workers, not the farmers to whom WKI provided crews of workers.
Washington. The Sarbanand Farms unit of Munger Brothers of California, the world's largest producer of fresh blueberries, was ordered to pay $150,000 for not giving workers rest breaks when required. Munger uses H-2A workers to harvest blueberries. A 28-year old H-2A worker died on the job in August 2017, prompting state investigators to examine Munger labor practices.
Columbia Legal Services sued Munger in January 2018 on behalf of 600 H-2A workers who allege that Munger violated federal "anti-trafficking laws through a highly orchestrated mass firing and eviction of approximately 70 H-2A workers, under threat of arrest by police and immigration authorities," in response to a one-day strike after the worker's death.
Stemilt Ag Services in February 2018 paid $464,000 to settle a similar case brought by workers who were paid piece-rate wages in 2014 and 2015 and not compensated separately for required rest breaks; those who submitted claims will get an average of $438. The Washington Supreme Court in July 2015, in Demetrio v. Sakuma Brothers, ruled that farm workers who are paid piece rate wages must be separately compensated for rest breaks of 10 minutes for every four hours of work.
The Washington Supreme Court did not deal with the question of whether employers who failed to pay for rest breaks must do so, but two federal courts have ruled that employers are liable for rest-break repayments for the past three years. In January 2018, six Yakima-area growers agreed to pay $2.6 million to 3,000 piece-rate workers who were not paid for rest breaks.
The owner of Remley Orchards near Dryden wants to build housing for almost 200 H-2A workers in a town with 250 residents. Remley says that H-2A workers are necessary to harvest 600 acres of pears, while some local residents say that adding 200 seasonal workers would overwhelm the town.