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July 2023, Volume 29, Number 3

Midwest, Northeast, Northwest

Colorado. Colorado in 2022 established the Benefit Recovery Fund to pay UI benefits of 55 percent of their average weekly wage to laid off unauthorized workers who were employed at least 12 months in the state at an estimated cost of $55 million a year. California Governor Newsom vetoed a similar bill in 2022 that would have cost an estimated $200 million a year.

The Colorado River, which runs 1,450 miles from the Rocky Mountains to Mexico, supplies water to farmers and 40 million Americans in seven states. A prolonged drought reduced water levels in Lakes Mead and Powell that can collectively hold 50 million acre-feet, ten times more than Lake Shasta in California.

Under a 1922 agreement and subsequent amendments, the upper-basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming get 7.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water a year, the lower-basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada get 8.5 million acre-feet, and Mexico gets 1.5 million acre-feet. However, instead of generating the expected 15 million acre-feet a year, the Colorado River has generated only 12 million acre-feet a year since 2020, so water extractions have depleted Lakes Mead and Powell.

The Imperial Irrigation District is the largest single Colorado River water user, with rights to 3.1 million acre-feet of water that is delivered via an 80-mile long canal. IID water is used primarily by about 400 farms to grow forage crops such as alfalfa and leafy green vegetables. Craig Elmore farms 7,000 acres with 40,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water, and Larry Cos farms 4,000 acres with 28,000 acre feet.

Arizona in 1968 agreed that the IID’s water rights were senior, but nonetheless relied on Colorado River water delivered via the Central Arizona Project to provide water to the suburbs of Phoenix and Tucson.

Runoff from irrigating IID fields in the Imperial Valley created the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake that lies 200 feet below sea level. As farmers irrigate more efficiently, the Salton Sea is shrinking and getting saltier, with salt levels twice that of sea water.

Six of the seven states that share Colorado River water agreed to reduce their water usage by over two million acre-feet, but California refused to give up the one million acre-feet as requested by the other states. Agriculture uses 80 percent of Colorado River water and has the most senior water rights. Arizona wants allocations to the IID and other agricultural districts reduced, which the agricultural districts resist unless they receive full compensation.

In May 2023, Arizona, California and Nevada agreed to reduce their Colorado River water deliveries by three million acre-feet through 2026 in exchange for $1.2 billion in federal payments. Most observers say that 19th century laws and 20th century infrastructure must adjust to 21st century climate realities.

Maricopa county (Phoenix) gets more than half its water supply from groundwater, and in June 2023 announced that new construction would have to slow until alternative sources of water are found, especially in the desert fringes of metro Phoenix where the cheapest new housing is found. Maricopa county, which includes farms, uses twice as much water as New York City.

Utah’s Great Salt Lake was 4,200 feet above sea level in November 2022, having lost 70 percent of its water since 1850. The lake rose three feet by April 2023 due to one of Salt Lake City’s snowiest-ever winters with more than 87 inches and a record snowpack that will raise the lake further when it melts.

Michigan. H-2A workers who were brought to North Carolina were also sent to First Pick Farms in 2017 to pick blueberries. The 32 workers say they worked up to 12 hours a day seven days a week and lived in substandard housing, and sued First Pick for trafficking in summer 2023. Crossroads Blueberry Farm hires 450 H-2A workers to pick its berries in West Olive.

Texas. Some 18,000 dairy cows died in April 2023 after an explosion and fire at Frank Brand’s South Fork Dairy Farm in Dimmittle southwest of Amarillo that was less than a year old. The 60 employees were rescued; the cause of the fire may have been methane gas in manure storage equipment. Rapid expansion of the dairy industry on the high plains of Texas has turned the state into the third leading milk producer after California and Wisconsin.

Wisconsin. Signet Builders employed H-2A workers to construct facilities on farms in Wisconsin and Indiana, and did not pay them overtime wages for work over 40 hours a week. Some of the H-2A workers sued under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the workers can sue because the FLSA exempts farm workers only if the work is “performed by a farmer or on a farm” and if the work “does not amount to an independent business.”

The FLSA defines “agricultural” to mean “farming in all its branches,” including “the raising of livestock” and “any practices performed ... on a farm as an incident to or in conjunction with ... farming operations.” By DOL regulation, the “erection of silos and granaries” are examples of work included in the exemption from the FLSA, and Signet argued that its buildings were similar to silos and granaries. However, the 7th Circuit said that Signet also had to show that the work was performed as “an incident to or in conjunction with” the farm’s operations.

Maine. Maine considered several bills in spring 2023 that would require farmers to pay the state’s minimum wage of $13.80 and provide overtime pay to farm workers and permit them to form unions without retaliation. Previous efforts to pass such legislation failed.

New York. The 2019 Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act grants farm workers overtime pay and collective bargaining rights. The UFW in June 2023 announced that it won the right to represent 500 H-2A workers at five NY farms using card check, including apple farms Wafler and Cahoon and vegetable grower Lynn-Ette. The Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and the United Food and Commercial Workers represent another 125 NY farm workers.

A May 2023 report based on interviews with over 600 farm workers found that average wages were $15.55 an hour and that a quarter of workers who were eligible did not receive overtime pay after 60 hours a week, even though farm employers can receive a refundable tax credit for the overtime wages they pay. Overtime pay will be due after 40 hours in 2032.

Almost 20 percent of the workers reported that they had a work injury that resulted in lost work time; a third of the workers who were injured were employed in dairies. Two-thirds of the workers interviewed were in Long Island and a quarter in the Finger Lakes, men were 55 percent of respondents, and over 40 percent were employed in nurseries and greenhouses. Average wages were over $16 in Long Island, and over $14 in upstate.

NY spent $1 billion to build a 1.2 million square foot facility in Buffalo at a refurbished steel mill for Tesla to manufacture solar panels; Tesla pays $1 a year in rent. Instead 3,000 workers turning out 10,000 solar panels a day, there are fewer than 2,000 employees mostly working on Tesla auto projects, another in a long line of billion-dollar busts as states offer huge subsidies for jobs.

Nevada. Casinos on the Las Vegas strip had over $8 billion in gambling revenue in 2022, and kept more of what was bet after changing the odds to favor the house. The number of blackjack tables has been reduced to about 1,000, minimum bets at blackjack are often $25 or $50, and payouts for wins have been reduced. Many of the 300 roulette tables added a third zero to increase the house advantage.

Washington. The US may have a 300 million bushel apple crop in 2023, which could reduce apple prices and lead to fewer and larger apple producers. Washington produces about 60 percent of US apples, followed by Michigan and New York that produce 13 percent each.

Global apple production is about 80 million metric tons a year, half in China and five percent in the US.

The cherry crop varies from year-to-year. Some 12 million boxes of cherries were shipped from Oregon and Washington in 2022, a number expected to jump to 30 million boxes in 2023. Red cherries are typically ripe in mid-June, and yellow or Rainer cherries in early July.

The 2023 blueberry crop is expected to be larger than usual. FAO reported that 1.8 million metric tons of blueberries were produced in 2021, including 477,000 tons in China, and that 460,000 tons worth $2.8 billion were exported. Blueberries are produced in 30 countries, Peru is the leading exporter, shipping 205,000 tons in 2021, followed by Mexico and the US, which each exported about 60,000 tons.
Beginning July 1, 2023, Washington workers will have 0.58 percent of their wages deducted for long-term care insurance worth up to $36,500. H-2A workers who are unlikely to benefit from Washington Cares can avoid the deduction.

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