January 2022, Volume 28, Number 1
Midwest, Northeast, Northwest
Colorado. The state Fair Labor Standards Act (SB 87) requires farm workers to be paid at least the state’s minimum wage of $12.56 in 2021, allows farm workers to join or form unions without retaliation, establishes new heat-safety protections, and requires employers to pay farm workers overtime wages of 1.5x the normal wage after 60 hours of work a week. There are no exclusions for small employers or H-2A workers.
All employers, except highly seasonal employers during their peak season, will be required to pay employees overtime wages after they work 48 hours a week in 2025. Highly seasonal employers are defined as those with at least twice as many employees during their peak seasons (up to 22 weeks) compared to the rest of the year.
Nebraska. Many of the state’s 93 countries are losing residents as young people move away for education and jobs and there are few new arrivals in farming areas with fewer and larger farms. Nebraska uses high property taxes to fund its schools, and farm land worth several thousand dollars an acre provides much of the state’s property tax revenues.
New York. The three-member state Farm Laborers Wage Board delayed a decision on the weekly hours after which farm workers must receive overtime pay; the current requirement is overtime pay after 60 hours a week. The 2019 Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act empowers the Board to require overtime pay after 40 hours a week. A Cornell study of 20 farms warned that New York dairy farms would shrink or exit dairy farming if they were required to pay overtime wages after 40 hours of work a week.
New York’s state minimum wage for upstate areas rose from $12.50 to $13.20 on January 1, 2022.
The New York State Public Employees Relations Board certified the RWDSU/UFCW Local 338 as the representative of 12 workers at Pindar Vineyards in Peconic in September 2021. The workers said that they wanted the union to negotiate overtime pay after 40 hours a week and ensure that their supervisors respected them.
Pennsylvania. Kennett Square in southeastern Pennsylvania, the mushroom capital of the world, has 50 mushroom farms. Mushroom seeds or spores are inserted into a compost of mulch, hay and straw that is fed into shelves by machine and covered with a two-inch casing of peat moss and lime.
The mushrooms are ready to harvest in 15 to 20 days. Each shelf is harvested two or three times by workers who use knives to cut ripe mushrooms; about 220 mushrooms fill a 10-pound box. Workers harvest an average 10 boxes an hour, and some work 10 to 12 hours a day to ensure that mushrooms, which can double in size in a day, are harvested. Growers receive about $1 a pound for mushrooms.
Martin Nelson and the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church were charged with human trafficking in a suit filed in November 2021 by troubled boys who say they were forced to work six days a week and restrained physically on a farm 40 miles northwest of Harrisburg. The Liberty Ridge Farm charged $2,300 a month to serve “troubled” boys with “special spiritual, emotional, and social needs.”
Maine. Voters approved a right to a food sovereignty amendment to the state constitution in November 2021 that gives residents a “natural, inherent and unalienable right” to grow, raise, produce and consume food of their own choosing. A state law enacted in 2017 allows farmers to sell directly to consumers as a way to bypass corporate control over the food system, drawing warnings from those who believe that a lack of testing may allow direct-to-consumer sales to increase foodborne illnesses. Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and North Dakota have similar state laws that promise their residents food sovereignty.
Kentucky. Some 34 million US adults, a seventh, smoked tobacco in 2018. Most tobacco is grown in the southeastern states and harvested by H-2A workers, who cut the plants, spear five of them into a stick or rod, and hang the rods of leaves in a barn for six weeks for the leaves to dry. Dried leaves are cut from the stems, bundled and sold.
Louisiana. Rivet and Sons LLC, a 6,000-acre sugarcane and soybean farm near Baton Rouge, allegedly threatened H-2A workers with firearms after they asked for food and water. DOL obtained a federal injunction in October 2021 prohibiting Glynn Rivet from being near the H-2A workers on the farm.
Mississippi. South Africans with H-2A visas are employed on over 100 farms in the Mississippi Delta. Six Black farm workers sued the Pitts Farms Partnership in September 2021, alleging that they were laid off to open jobs for younger white South Africans with H-2A visas. In FY20, Mexicans received 198,000 H-2A visas and South Africans 5,500. The South Africans are often experienced equipment operators, speak English, and are willing to work long hours.
Oregon. Farm worker advocate PCUN wants the state legislature to approve overtime pay for farm workers on an 8/40 basis, ending the farm worker exemption from overtime. A 2021 bill phasing in overtime for farm workers would have provided $100 million to cover 80 percent of grower overtime costs for three years. Willamette Valley Vineyards, which has 45 year-round and 90 seasonal workers, announced that it would begin to pay overtime after 55 hours a week in January 2022 and on an 8/40 basis in 2024.
Washington. The Employment Security Department tried to recruit US workers for 2021 harvests in the state, and reportedly referred one worker who was not hired by the farmer to whom he was sent. Ever more farmers are turning to the H-2A program, which requires them to provide housing at no charge to guest workers and to pay the AEWR of $17.41 an hour in 2022.
The Washington Supreme Court decided in November 2020 that the Legislature had no reasonable basis to exclude farm workers from overtime protections in 1959. Since agricultural work is dangerous and exposes workers to risks from physical strain, pesticides and disease, the Supreme Court concluded that the state overtime exemption had racist origins and was unlawful.
Almost all new plantings of apples in Washington involve shallow-rooted trees that are supported by trellises and bear fruit within three years. The cost of replanting a traditional with a trellis orchard can be $50,000 an acre or more, which is one reason why the apple industry is increasingly reliant on pension funds and insurance companies for capital. The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan purchased Broetje Orchards in February 2019, paying $288 million for 6,000 acres of land or $48,000 an acre.
Some growers say that outside investors are overpaying for Washington apple orchards, much as California grape growers say investors are overpaying for California vineyards.
Growing apples on trellises means more fruit is exposed to sunlight and develops higher sugar levels. Shallow-rooted trellis trees are stressed with too little water so that they put their energy into making fruit rather than wood, and workers have an easier time picking fruit from two-dimensional trees. Israel-based FFRobotics is developing a harvester that identifies ripe apples and picks them using six arms that snip off each apple.
Washington experienced heavy rain and snow in the mountains that closed roads and limited east-west transportation in January 2022. Many cities in western Washington had the wettest start to the year on record.
Alaska. Kodiak Island recorded a record 67 F temperature in December 2021; southern Alaska had record warm temperatures while the Pacific Northwest had record cold temperatures. Many areas of interior Alaska including Fairbanks received record amounts of rainfall in December 2021 that coated roads and promised to leave ice on roads until spring.
Interior Alaska experienced hurricane-strength winds in January 2021 that left many without power in the Matanuska area northeast of Anchorage, the state’s agricultural heartland.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets catch limits for 140-plus species within 47 stocks and stock complexes in Alaskan waters that are three to 200 miles offshore, announced in December 2021 that up to 330 million pounds of Pacific Cod, 550 million pounds of yellowfin sole, and 2.4 billion pounds of Bering Sea pollock, can be caught in 2022. About 80 percent of the permits for Alaska fishing go to boats based in Washington, including over 200 based in Seattle.
The Alaska Earthquake Center, which reported more than 49,000 seismic events in the state and nearby regions in 2020, noted that the 8.2 Chignik earthquake of July 28, 2021 off the Alaska peninsula was the strongest in the US in 50 years. On March 27, 1964, Alaska experienced the second-strongest earthquake in world history, a 9.2 earthquake centered about 90 miles east of Anchorage that released twice the energy of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which had a magnitude of 7.9.