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January 2023, Volume 29, Number 1

Midwest, Northeast, Northwest

Illinois. A quarter of US pumpkins are from Illinois, and 40 percent are from six states including Indiana, California, Texas, Michigan, and Virginia. The average retail price of a Halloween pumpkin was $5 in fall 2022.

Stellantis (Fiat-Chrysler and Peugeot) is closing the Jeep Cherokee plant in 25,000-resident Belvidere in February 2023, eliminating 1,350 jobs. Many auto makers are closing plants that produce components for gas-powered vehicles in Midwestern states and opening battery and EV assembly plants in Southern states. The UAW believes that announcing plant closures may be an employer bargaining strategy before upcoming negotiations.

Wisconsin. Signet Builders constructs structures on farms, and hired H-2A workers to build farm facilities. An H-2A worker sued because he worked more than 40 hours a week and was not paid overtime wages. A federal judge dismissed the worker’s suit, agreeing with Signet that constructing buildings on farms was secondary agriculture work not subject to the FLSA.

The 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back for trial, emphasizing that DOL’s definition of farm work under H-2A was broader than in the FLSA, so that some H-2A work does not qualify for FLSA overtime exemptions (Vanegas v. Signet Builders).

Mississippi. The Pitts Farm Partnership in December 2022 settled suits filed by US Black workers who alleged that Pitts hired white South African H-2A workers and paid them higher wages for the same type of work. A similar suit that accused Harris Russell Farms, a catfish farm, of discriminating against US Black workers was also settled in December 2022.

Worker attorneys say that discrimination against US workers is widespread in the Delta. In November 2022, DOL reported collecting $134,532 in unpaid wages for 54 workers at 11 farms in the Mississippi Delta and assessed CMPs of $122,610 against these farms. Many Delta farms pay US workers the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and H-2A workers the AEWR of about $11.

Texas. Laredo, a city of 250,000 on the Mexican border, is the major transit point for trucks passing north and south to Mexico. Mexico-US trade was over $660 billion in 2021, and much of this two-way trade moves over twin bridges in Laredo that connect to I-35, the NAFTA highway. Officials hope to build a new bridge that would reduce border delays to less than 30 minutes per truck.

Maine. State law PL 280 forbids H-2A workers from driving logging trucks for operations with 50,000 or more acres within Maine, a bid to ensure that no Maine workers are displaced by H-2A Canadians. Federal courts appear poised to overturn PL 280; opponents contend that DOL must certify the need for H-2A workers, so no Maine workers are displaced.

Maine is the leading US producer of wild blueberries from barrens in coastal areas, producing over 50 million metric tons in 2021. Canada produces over 75 million metric tons of wild blueberries, led by Quebec. Wild blueberry production has been rising in Canada and falling in Maine as the Canadian government opens more Crown land for barrens while aging Maine growers sell their coastal barrens to developers.

The ropes used by Maine lobstermen to haul traps from the bottom of the ocean may also entrap some of the remaining 340 North Atlantic right whales. The US estimates 27 whale deaths a year in Canadian and US waters, including 20 that are due to entanglement in fishing gear and lobster trap ropes.

Most dead whales are not found, so whale death estimates are made by counting whales where they congregate and assuming that missing whales are dead. Several seafood guides recommend that consumers avoid Maine lobster to save the whales, drawing protests from the Maine lobstermen who sell about $750 million worth of lobster a year.

NOAA developed a regulation in 2021 to protect whales from fishing gear entanglement that environmentalists criticized as too weak, prompting a federal judge to order NOAA to develop a tougher rule by 2024. However, Congress inserted a rider in the year-end spending bill in December 2022 that keeps the 2021 regulation in place for six years to protect lobstermen.

Most lobster boats are owned by individuals who sell to dealers and processors. Some are experimenting with rope-less traps, which store ropes underwater and raise them when signaled from the boat. Rope-less traps are far more expensive than the traditional traps that rely on ropes that run from buoys on the surface to traps on the ocean floor.

New York. Farm workers will receive overtime pay after working 60 hours a week beginning in 2024, with overtime after 40 hours in 2032. There is no overtime after eight hours a day, and farmers will receive a tax credit for the overtime wages they pay at a cost of $150 million to the state by 2032.

Six other states require farm employers to pay overtime wages, but only California has so far required farmers to pay overtime on an 8/40 basis.

Two Mexican H-2A workers accused Jesus Flores and Berkshire Nursery & Supply in Patterson and Rosa Contracting of not paying them promised wages. Flores applied for 12 H-2A workers to work in a 45-acre greenhouse and nursery; the workers allege that they mostly did landscaping and construction work for Flores.

Pennsylvania. Luzerne county in northeastern Pennsylvania is diversifying faster than any other large US county in the 21st century, drawing Hispanics from New York and New Jersey for its lower cost of living. The share of foreign-born residents in Wilkes-Barre almost doubled from seven to 13 percent between 2010 and 2020.

Colorado. The water crisis on the Colorado River may reach a breaking point in 2023. Water users have drawn an average 15 million acre-feet per year from the river and its dams since 2000, while the average annual flow was 13 million acre feet. Lakes Powell and Mead, which were almost at capacity of 50 million acre feet of water in 2000, now have 13 million acre feet.

Oregon. Oregon has 1,100 licensed farm labor contractors, including employees of FLCs who supervise and transport farm workers. Some 175 FLCs (115115) were registered with the Oregon UI system in 2021; they employed an average 6,600 workers and paid them an average $550 a week.

Some 112 complaints were filed against licensed farm labor contractors in Oregon between 2019 and 2022; workers received back wages in a quarter of these cases. Jorge Vasquez was licensed to operate Velasquez Farm Labor between 2007 and 2009 and developed a reputation among workers as El Diablo. His daughter opened an FLC business in 2012 as Vasquez Family Labor Services, with Jorge allegedly involved and the business fined repeatedly for labor law violations.

Some 17 workers who were employed by Southern Oregon hemp producer Colt Jamison Hansen were required to work 12 hours a day and did not receive the promised $20 an hour; they were awarded $388,700 in October 2022 or $17,000 to $24,000 per worker because Hansen failed to respond to the worker charges. Hemp production has been falling as grower prices fell after 2019, leading many growers to exit hemp growing.

The legalization of recreational marijuana has not reduced illegal marijuana cultivation because high taxes reduce the incentive for growers and retailers to operate legally. Unlicensed cannabis growers often hire unauthorized workers after they finish seasonal work in other commodities, promising high wages that are sometimes not paid.

Cannabis Workers Rising, an affiliate of the United Food and Commercial Workers, says that the unauthorized workers employed in unlicensed cannabis operations are often trafficked workers.

Washington. Washington produces two-thirds of US apples, followed by an eighth from New York, almost 10 percent from Michigan, and five percent from Pennsylvania. Gala accounts for 20 percent of US apples, followed by Red Delicious, Fuji, Honeycrisp and Granny Smith. The share of Honeycrisp is rising, while the shares of Red Delicious and Gala are declining.

Washington’s apple production fell from almost 125 million 40-pound boxes in 2021 to 100 million boxes in 2022. Some 64 extra-large apples fill a box, while 88 large apples, 100 medium apples and 125 smaller apples fill one box; the 2022 crop included more small apples.

Washington’s Attorney General sued Ostrom Mushroom Farms of Sunnyside in August 2022, alleging that Ostrom fired three-fourths of its US workers and replaced them with H-2A guest workers after they complained about working conditions. Ostrom, which opened the $60 million Sunnyside mushroom facility in 2019, denied the charges.

Alaska. Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game canceled the winter snow crab season in the Bering Sea in 2022-23 because of a decline in the crab population; 65 boats were affected.

The Biden administration offered funding to three Native American tribes in Alaska and two in Washington to help them relocate away from rivers and coastlines that are experiencing more flooding. The subsidized moving policy is a test of moving people away from danger rather than rebuilding after storms by offering $2 million to $3 million to each village in danger to help to cover the cost of relocation.

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