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July 2021, Volume 27, Number 3

Midwest, Northeast, Northwest

Colorado. Senate Bill 21-087, signed into law in June 2021, grants farm workers the right to unionize and requires them to be paid at least the state’s minimum wage of $12.32 an hour in 2021, plus overtime pay after 12 hours a day and 40 hours a week. Worker advocates supported the bill, arguing that farm workers should have the same rights as nonfarm workers, while employers warned that worker pay would drop because farmers would reduce hours rather than pay overtime wages.

Iowa. A Mexican-born dairy worker who entered the US illegally at age 17 was convicted of killing a college student in Brooklyn in 2018 when he was 24; he was found guilty in May 2021. Cristhian Bahena Rivera used false documents to get a job at Yarrabee Farms, but did not learn English.

Iowa is a Republican state that may presage losses for Democrats in states where unionized manufacturing workers have been replaced by non-union immigrant workers. Factories have fewer workers, and declining populations leave a sense that elites are unable to reverse the decline, making voters receptive to America-First messages. Some Democratic leaders want a more diverse state such as Nevada to replace Iowa and New Hampshire as the first states to vote in presidential primaries.

Iowa is expected to produce a sixth of the 15 billion bushels of US corn in 2021 and a ninth of the 4.4 billion bushels of soybeans from 13.2 million and 9.8 million acres, respectively. Iowa replaced Nebraska as the leading producer of red meat in 2019, accounting for a sixth of the 55 billion pounds of US red meat production.

The US had 683 federally inspected meat processing plants in 2020. The 13 largest each slaughtered over a million animals a year and accounted for 54 percent of all animals processed.

Illinois. The Native American city of Cahokia east of St Louis had an estimated 20,000 residents in the 1100s, but was largely abandoned by 1350. There is no consensus on why Cahokia was abandoned, but researchers suggest that Native Americans did not commit ecocide, cutting down trees that later led to flooding. Some of the descendants of Cahokia became the dispersed Osage Nation.

Michigan. Tart cherries are harvested by shake and catch machines, and the area around Traverse Bay, Michigan produces most of the US crop, a record 201 million pounds in 2017. The 2021 crop is estimated to be 66 million pounds due to first drought and then heavy rains.

Pennsylvania. Mushroom growers around Kennett Square say that workers are leaving for jobs in construction, landscaping and warehouses, leaving them with too few harvesters. Most mushrooms are harvested for piece-rate wages, and the experienced workforce is aging. Mushrooms are grown indoors, making it easier to develop machines to pick them.

Oregon. HB 2358 and SB 616 would require farm employers to pay overtime wages to farm workers after 40 hours a week. Farmers oppose these bills, arguing that agriculture was exempted from overtime wage laws because of its seasonality.

A 38-year old Guatemalan employed by Brother Farm Labor Contractor died of heat stress at the Ernst Nursery and Farms in July 2021, prompting worker advocates to call for emergency heat-stress regulations to protect farm workers.

Portland has had almost nightly protests since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, with an estimated 200 black-clad demonstrators regularly engaging in vandalism of businesses.

Washington. A state judge in April 2021 issued an injunction that prohibits the state from enforcing regulations that require employers to ensure that their farm workers are within an hour of an emergency room that has a ventilator and to allow community workers to access farm workers in the workplace. The state government in June 2021 agreed with farmers that vaccinated farm workers do not need to wear masks if all workers are vaccinated in the workplace or in worker housing.

SB 5172 requires farm employers to pay overtime wages after 55 hours a week starting January 1, 2022, after 48 hours in 2023, and after 40 hours in 2024. The bill blocks suits for overtime pay in past years.

The House Workforce Protections Subcommittee held a hearing May 3, 2021 on the workers who remain exempt from the overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Democrats said that essential farm workers should receive overtime pay as a matter of fairness and justice, while Republicans said that requiring overtime pay would force farmers to automate and lead to increased imports, leaving some farm workers worse off

Seven states, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, New York, Minnesota and Washington, require overtime wages for farm workers, although most do not require overtime after 8/40 and Hawaii’s law raises the hours worked before overtime is required during the harvest season. Bills are pending in Maine and Oregon to require overtime pay for farm workers.

Washington is expecting a 112 million bushel apple harvest in 2021, down from 134 million bushels in 2020.

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