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October 2020, Volume 26, Number 4

Midwest, Northeast, Northwest

Michigan. The state Department of Health and Human Services in August 2020 ordered newly arrived migrant and seasonal workers to have a negative Covid-19 test before beginning to work on Michigan farms with 20 or more employees; greenhouses and food processing firms are also required to test newly arrived migrants.

True Blue Berry Management and Smeltzer Orchards, as well as six farm workers, sued to block implementation of the Covid-testing requirement, alleging that requiring Covid-19 testing unlawfully targeted Hispanics and encouraged some to leave or not enter Michigan. However, at the urging of worker advocates, a federal judge refused to block the testing requirement, and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to overturn the judge, noting that there was a “legitimate government purpose of protecting migrant workers, their families, their communities, and the food supply chain, enforcing it [testing requirements] serves the public interest.”

New York. A federal judge in July 2020 ruled that the state’s farmers cannot block the implementation of provisions of the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act enacted in 2019 that grants collective bargaining rights and overtime pay to farm workers, including H-2A workers. A state Farm Laborers Wage Board held hearings in August 2020 on whether to lower the current 60-hour-a-week threshold before overtime pay is due to an estimated 24,000 farm workers.

Pennsylvania. Southeastern Pennsylvania is a major producer of fresh mushrooms. Kennett Square-based South Mill Champs, which has 1,800 employees, announced plans in July 2020 to buy the 200-employee Loveday Mushroom Farms in Manitoba, bringing South Mill’s total production to 100 million pounds a year. The US produced about 850 million pounds of fresh mushrooms, and Canada 300 million pounds, in 2019. South Mill is owned by private equity firm Eos.

Colorado. Sweet corn farmer John Harold’s Tuxedo Corn company employs 180 H-2A workers to harvest 34 million ears of sweet corn, which is shipped to supermarkets in containers with 50 ears each. Field conveyor belts called mule trains have 20 foot wings on both sides of a packing platform for a crew of 50 workers, half pickers and half packers. A crew can pick and pack 420 containers with 50 ears each in 30 minutes.

New Mexico. Chile pepper farmers complained of labor shortages in August 2020, especially those trying to pick the peppers while they were green; peppers turn red with more time to grow. Growers complained that local workers, many based in El Paso, received more from unemployment insurance benefits than from working, forcing them to hire H-2A workers. Piece rates were reportedly $1.20 a bucket for picking chile, the same as previous years.

Texas. Supervisor Jose Ramon Huaracha of Larsen Farms, a potato farmer and packer with operations in Idaho, Colorado, and Texas, was accused in July 2020 of charging H-2A workers for jobs. Huaracha, the brother of the farm’s general manager, allegedly charged H-2A workers $1,500 each for their jobs. About 100 of the 400 workers on the 45,000-acre Larsen Farm near Dalhart, Texas are H-2A workers housed in mobile homes near the packing plant and in nearby motels. One of the H-2A workers died of a heart attack perhaps aggravated by Covid in July 2020.

Blaine Larsen Farms is based in Hamer, Idaho. Larsen was found to have violated H-2A regulations in 2009 and 2015.

Five percent of the 65,000 residents of Starr county tested positive for Covid by September 2020, one of the highest positive rates in the US. Starr county’s residents are 99 percent Hispanic, and 35 percent have below-poverty incomes. Many of the mobile homes of poor residents were flooded by Hurricane Hanna in July 2020.

Idaho. The Snake River Farmers Association, which assists 500 farmers to obtain H-2A workers, reported that it filled only one of the jobs advertised as required by H-2A regulations with US workers in 2020. There were 4,468 jobs certified to be filled with H-2A workers in Idaho in FY19, including 1,249 in the Magic Valley, where H-2A workers arrive in March and April and depart in October.

Many sheep farmers in the western states rely on H-2A sheepherders from Peru, each of whom tends a flock of 1,000 sheep. Farmers pay the US Forest Service $0.27 per sheep per month to graze their flocks on public lands, and normally sell lambs born in spring to meat-processing plants in August.

The closure of several lamb processors lowered prices to less than $1 a pound for lamb, forcing some farmers to keep lambs longer. Rams that cost $650 each in 2019 could be bought for less than $400 each in 2020.

Washington. Yakima county emerged as a Covid-19 hotspot in summer 2020. Apple packing workers began to contract Covid in March-April 2020, prompting some to strike to demand more protections. By summer 2020, a combination of cherry harvesting, large family gatherings, and few masks allowed the virus to spread.

One Covid outbreak was at a Gebbers Farm labor camp in Okanogan county. Gebbers employs a peak 4,500 workers to harvest apples and cherries, including half who are H-2A workers. As of July 2020, some 120 Gebbers workers tested positive for Covid, prompting the state to order Gebbers to test all of its workers for the virus. Gebbers uses WAFLA to obtain H-2A workers, and two Mexican H-2A workers died of Covid complications in summer 2020.

Washington is expecting 134 million 40-pound boxes of apples in 2020, the same as in 2019. Gala is 23 percent of the crop, followed by Red Delicious, 17 percent; Fuji, 14 percent; and Granny Smith and Honeycrisp, 13 percent each.

Zirkle Fruit, one of the state’s largest blueberry producers, picks blueberries by hand. In 2019, Zirkle was paying H-2A workers $0.50 a pound when a state survey found that the prevailing wage was $0.75 a pound. Zirkle sued, and an analysis of the survey found that 54 growers responded, including 17 who reported only a piece-rate wage. Growers want to be required to pay H-2A workers only the AEWR of $15.83 in 2020, not a per-pound prevailing wage.

H-2A workers employed by Stemilt Ag Services sued in July 2020 under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), alleging that Stemilt H-2A job orders did not include a production standard in 2017. However, when they arrived in Washington, the H-2A workers were told they had to pick a minimum number of bins of apples a day to keep their jobs. The workers want the judge to certify a class action covering all Stemilt H-2A workers in 2017.

Green Acre Farms and Valley Fruit Orchards of Wapato in August 2020 agreed to pay $325,000 to 105 Thai H-2A workers, ending a suit that began when Global Horizons brought them H-2A workers a decade ago. A federal judge dismissed the EEOC suit seeking payments for the Thai workers, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, leading to the settlement.

California and New York extended overtime wages to farm workers via legislation, while in Washington worker advocates are seeking overtime pay for farm workers via the state supreme court. Advocates argue that the state law exempting farm employers from overtime pay requirements was based on racism against Blacks. Farmers counter that most hired farm workers were white when the state exempted farm workers from overtime in the late 1950s.

Asian giant hornets, first found in late 2019 in Washington state, are spreading southward. The two-inch long hornets use their mandibles to attack and destroy honeybee hives in a matter of hours, and kill up to 50 people a year in Japan.


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