July 2020, Volume 26, Number 3
Midwest, Northeast, Northwest
Michigan. H-2A workers employed at Four Star Greenhouse in Carleton charged that they were underpaid between January and July 2018. The workers were recruited by Vasquez Citrus & Hauling of Lake Placid, Florida to work in North Carolina in 2017. They were transferred to Four Star in Michigan after their North Carolina jobs ended early in 2018, even though Vasquez did not obtain new H-2A visas for the workers to be employed at Four Star.
Vasquez did not pay the workers? wages in Michigan, prompting them to complain. Vasquez turned the complaining workers over to immigration authorities, and they were deported to Mexico. DOL debarred Vasquez from the H-2A program in 2018 for three years. The workers in June 2020 sued Four Star, even though the Vasquez-Four Star contract said that there was no joint employment relationship, alleging that the greenhouse should have been aware of Vasquez?s violations and was jointly liable with Vasquez to remedy them. Vasquez was fined $22,000 in 2016 after a bus crash that killed six H-2A workers being returned from Michigan to Mexico.
Migrants from Florida and Texas, mostly US citizens, migrate each year to Michigan and other midwestern states to harvest fruits and vegetables. These migrants usually receive housing from farm employers and services from migrant service agencies. In 2020, some of the services normally available to migrant families were curtailed by Covid, including Migrant Head Start and Education services.
South Dakota. Strehlow Bees of Kadoka paid $467,000 in back wages to 36 US and H-2A workers and civil money assessments after DOL found that the Strehlow paid a lower wage than it promised in its job order, did not disclose all of the worksites, where H-2A workers were employed and failed to advertise for US workers as required. Strehlow?s H-2A workers were from South Africa and Nicaragua.
Louisiana. Louisiana has 480,000 acres of sugar cane in the southern part of the state that produce 14 million tons of cane a year, or 20 percent of US sugar from both cane and beets. Most of the state?s 11 sugar mills rely on H-2A workers to plant sugar cane and to operate harvest equipment during the 100-day October to January harvest. DOL has been reluctant to allow sugar mills to use H-2A workers to drive harvested cane from fields to mills; cane must be ground quickly after harvest.
Tennessee. Henderson Farms in Evensville tested its 200 H-2A workers in May 2020 and found that all had Covid-19, even though only three had symptoms. The employees continued to work, and did not leave the farm.
New Jersey. An estimated 22,000 workers, many of whom are from other states, work seasonally on New Jersey farms. In March, April, May and June, some 3,900 farm workers were tested for Covid-19, and five percent were positive.
The 1,300-acre Atlantic Blueberry Company in Hammonton is the state?s largest producer of the most valuable crop; New Jersey?s blueberries were worth $62 million in 2019. Atlantic harvests blueberries by hand and machine.
Maine. Lobstermen caught a record 132 million pounds of lobster in 2016 worth $540 million in 2016, but the price dropped as the trade war with China intensified and China imposed tariffs. In 2019, about 100 million pounds of lobster worth $485 million was caught. The catch and price are expected to be lower in 2020, as fewer than the usual 30 million tourists are expected to visit Maine and Chinese tariffs continue.
Nevada. Peri & Sons harvests 400 million pounds of onions in August-September in Mason Valley, Nevada, and partners with the Nunes Company to produce 65 million pounds of fresh vegetables in California each year. Peri hires 1,400 H-2A workers. The Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) that must be paid to H-2A workers rose 20 percent between 2018 and 2019, prompting Peri to sue in a bid to save an estimated $4 million in extra labor costs. A federal judge dismissed the suit.
Oregon. Worker advocates petitioned the state?s OSHA agency to increase protections for farm workers due to Covid. Farmers say that the safety precautions that are already in effect protect farm workers. There is a shortage of housing in the Columbia River Gorge, which has two-thirds of the 8,600 beds for temporary farm workers to harvest cherries and pears. Orchard View in The Dalles said that many of its harvest workers were families who live in family housing.
Beginning May 11, 2020, farm employers must keep unrelated employees at least six feet apart during work activities and breaks, and must keep beds six feet apart in farm worker housing, which means using only one bed in bunk beds. Farm employers must have one toilet for each 10 workers, down from one for each 20 workers, and sanitize them at least three times a day.
Washington. Several labor organizations, including Familias Unidas por la Justicia and the United Farm Workers, sued the state Departments of Health and Labor & Industries in April 2020 to encourage these agencies to issue emergency regulations to protect farm workers from Covid-19 after half of the 70 workers in a Stemilt farm labor camp tested positive.
Washington has 90,000 peak seasonal farm workers, including 20,000 with H-2A visas who are housed by their employers. Growers provide at least 31,000 beds for seasonal workers that are inspected by the state, most in dorms with bunk beds.
Unions wanted the top bunks left empty in farm worker housing, which would halve the number of workers who could be housed. Instead, state agencies in May 2020 allowed both bunks to be used if bunks were at least six feet apart and workers were isolated in groups of up to 15 as they work, travel, and sleep together. Employers must provide their employees with PPE, and isolate any group that includes someone who tests positive for Covid-19.
Some fruit-packinghouse workers went on strike in spring 2020 to protest what they considered unsafe working conditions and to demand extra hazard pay of $1 to $2 an hour. The Yakima Health District inspected the apple packinghouses and concluded that they were taking adequate protective measures to avoid the spread of Covid-19.
In July 2020, Covid-19 was spreading rapidly among field workers in Yakima, when 20 percent of the almost 7,500 Covid-19 cases in the county were among farm workers. Some growers tried to isolate their farm workers from Covid by arranging for them to visit supermarkets when they had few other customers, or having a few workers shop for all of the workers.
There were 34 million bushels of fresh apples in cold storage on June 1, 2020, including almost a third of the Red Delicious variety. Washington produces two-thirds of US apples, and expects a bumper crop in 2020, which may put downward pressure on apple prices.
Alaska. An influx of workers to staff summer resorts and fishing boats increased the number of Covid-19 cases. Some five billion worth of wild seafood is caught and processed in Alaska each summer, most seasonal workers are from the lower 48 states and guest workers who live in dorms and other crowded housing while in the state.
Cordova, the 2,000-resident city at the mouth of the Copper River, tried to test all newcomers for Covid-19 and trace the contacts of those with the disease. Health officials urged that the salmon fishing season in Dillingham on Bristol Bay be cancelled for 2020.