October 2023, Volume 29, Number 4
Northeast, Midwest, Northwest
Maine. The governor in July 2023 vetoed a bill that would have required employers to pay farm workers the state’s $13.80 an hour minimum wage, up from the current federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. A requirement that farm workers receive overtime pay was dropped, prompting complaints from worker advocates. State minimum wage laws do not apply to farm workers in 19 states including Maine.
New Jersey. DOL required Sun Valley Orchards in 2015 to pay $344,946 in back wages and $211,800 in other penalties for violations of H-2A regulations, and these penalties were upheld by an ALJ. Sun Valley appealed with the help of the Institute for Justice, which alleged that the ALJ system was unconstitutional. A federal judge in August 2023 upheld the ALJ system and Sun Valley’s obligations to pay WHD-assessed back wages and CMPs.
New York. NY farmers sued in September 2023 to block implementation of the Farm Laborer Fair Labor Practices Act (FLFLPA) enacted in 2019. The state’s Public Employment Relations Board administers the FLFLPA.
The UFW says that H-2A workers at five NY farms want the UFW to represent them, while farmers say that H-2A workers should not be considered farm laborers under the FLFLPA because the federal government approves detailed contracts that set wages and conditions of work. The UFW, which wants farmers to guarantee that current H-2A workers will be invited to return next season, alleged in September 2023 that Wafler Farms of Wolcott is refusing to recognize it as the representative of its H-2A workers.
Illinois. Rivian Automotive based in normal sells $80,000 electric-powered pickup trucks with extensive features and loses over $30,000 on each sale. Rivian raised $12 billion in a 2021 IPO, and spent $18 billion since then, losing money as it scales production beyond the 50,000 vehicles delivered so far. Rivian says it will be profitable in 2025 as per unit costs decline as production expands.
Car manufacturers invest significant capital and aim to operate their factories at least two shifts. Rivian designed a skateboard chassis to house the batteries and electric motors, and a suspension system that can raise and lower the vehicle’s height by six inches. However, Rivian’s R1T pickup is smaller than the Ford F-150 and weighs almost 700 pounds more.
Texas. Texas-based Naturesweet has 6,000 employees, most in Mexican greenhouses. Naturesweet is certified by Fair Trade, the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI), and has B-Corp certification.
Unincorporated subdivisions with little infrastructure known as colonias were established in rural Texas in the 1950s, and today 840,000 people live in colonias without full water and sewage systems. Poor residents often buy lots for less than $25,000 and build their own houses, moving in before the house is completed.
Wisconsin. Clark County has the most dairy farms in the dairy state, marked by a 16-foot-tall, black-and-white talking Holstein in the county seat of Neillsville. Many dairies rely on unauthorized workers, but Wisconsin does not allow them to obtain driver’s licenses.
Technology that allows police to scan license plates and detect cars without insurance often results in drivers being stopped and ticketed, leading to complaints that local police use migrants as an ATM. Some dairy farmers want the state to issue driver’s licenses to the state’s 70,000 unauthorized foreigners, including at least 6,000 employed on the state’s dairies. Some district attorneys have stopped bringing criminal charges against those caught driving without licenses, and some counties issue local ID cards to local unauthorized workers.
Foxconn promised 13,000 jobs on a Mount Pleasant campus of 3,000 acres 30 miles west of Milwaukee in 2018, and received $500 million of the promised $3 billion in state and local assistance. However, an LCD manufacturing plant was not built, and Foxconn had 1,000 employees at the mostly empty site in 2023. Critics say that Foxconn made promises to discourage President Trump from levying tariffs on iPhone assembled in China.
Idaho. John Anchustegui relied on H-2A shepherds from Peru, some of whom complained of insufficient food while watching bands of 1,000 to 2,000 sheep for $1,900 a month ($3,850 in California and $2,423 in Colorado). Anchustegui, who died in June 2023, allegedly threatened workers who complained and state inspectors who checked the housing he was required to provide to H-2A shepherds.
Mountain Plains Agricultural Services, the H-2A agent for Anchustegui, notified the Idaho Department of Labor in 2004 that Anchustegui was making illegal deductions from wages and not paying his workers each month as required. However, Mountain Plains continued to be Anchustegui’s agent and ID’s DOL SWA continued to approve his job offers and housing.
ID DOL has 12 employees to administer the H-2A program and monitor conditions for the state’s farm workers. An ID DOL employee in 2008 wrote that Anchustegui held “onto their [employees’] money until they need it — or want it.”
There are about 600 H-2A sheepherders in Idaho, and some leave their jobs to work illegally in construction or service jobs. A state senator wants to make it a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail for H-2A sheepherders to leave their employers; he argues that employers pay for H-2A transportation to the US and may leave a herd of sheep unattended if they abscond. The senator’s goal is to give absconding sheepherders a state criminal record so that they become an enforcement priority for ICE.
Oregon. Portland, the rose city of 635,000, is struggling with homelessness and crime. The city allowed tents on the streets and under bridges after a federal appeals court ruled that tents cannot be removed unless the city provides alternative shelter, prompting a backlash from businesses and residents. The city is trying to group the homeless into pods operated by contractors.
Utah. Utah Farm Bureau Federation president and owner of Green Acres Dairy Ron Gibson employs H-2A workers to grow vegetables. Gibson resigned in August 2023 after being arrested for assaulting an employee who complained of not being paid promptly.
The assault led to an investigation of human trafficking and fraud for not paying his employees. Gibson said that his employees agreed not to be paid on a regular schedule even though deferred pay schedules are unlawful.
Washington. The US expects a 250-million bushel apple crop in 2023, including 160 million bushels or two-thirds in Washington; Michigan and New York each produce about 27 million bushels or a sixth of the US crop. The leading variety is Gala, 45 million bushels, followed by 31 million bushels of Red Delicious and 28 million bushels of Honeycrisp. Red Delicious production is falling while Honeycrisp production is increasing, and Cosmic Crisp is rising.
About 20 percent of US apples are branded varieties such Honeycrisp that was developed at the U- Minnesota; most branded apples were developed at Cornell, Minnesota, and WSU. Even though Honeycrisp is number three in volume, it is number one in sales revenue because of its higher selling price.
Washington is phasing in overtime pay for farm workers, which begins after 48 hours in 2023 and after 40 hours in 2024. Complaints from both employers and workers prompted proposals to allow farm employers to select 12 weeks a year when overtime pay would not begin until after 50 hours a week. Colorado allows farmers to select 22 weeks during which overtime begins after 56 hours a week.
Stemilt Ag Services settled a suit for $37,500 against a former employee who double-billed Stemilt for H-2A recruitment services. The fired employee created H2Global in 2016 and Stemilt fired her in 2017.
Ostrom Mushroom Farms in Sunnyside in 2023 was assessed $60,000 for unpaid wages for 62 H-2A employees and almost $75,000 in CMPs for failing to provide the housing listed on its job order and failing to provide meals or cooking facilities. One H-2A worker paid $10,000 for his job, which was also a violation of H-2A regulations.
Ostrom has been renamed Windmill Farm and is the target of a UFW organizing campaign. Union organizers say that Windmill is hiring limited Spanish-speaking H-2A workers from southern Mexican states.
Walfa is the largest H-2A operator in Washington, serving 300 employers and bringing 18,000 H-2A workers into Washington and other states.
PWRs. DOL is approving Washington H-2A job orders that guarantee the AEWR and specify piece rates for picking apples, cherries, and pears. For example, a 2023 Stemilt order for over 1,500 H-2A workers guaranteed the AEWR of $17.41 and offered piece rates of $28.26 per bin to pick most varieties of apples (more for pink lady and Honeycrisp), with workers expected to pick three-fourths of a bin an hour.
The piece rate for picking pears in Stemilt job orders is about $25 a bin and the productivity standard is three-fourths of a bin an hour, while the piece rate for picking red cherries is $0.21 a pound. Workers pick cherries into 20-pound buckets and are expected to average 5.4 buckets or 108 pounds an hour. Washington produced 180 million pounds of blueberries in 2021, more than the 150 million pounds produced in Oregon; most growers pay $0.50 a pound to hand pick blueberries.
Washington’s Employment Services Department released the results of its 2022 prevailing wage rate (PWRs) surveys in June 2023. Employer response rates were low: 28 percent or 358 employers responded and 53 percent or 644 workers responded.
ESD uses a capture-recapture technique to estimate wages and peak week employment for 284 crop-variety-activity combinations, aiming to distinguish between the PWR for harvesting Gala and Honeycrisp apples. However, ESD received sufficient data from employers to determine prevailing wages for only 12 of these 284 combinations, four percent.
ESD is the only SWA that uses capture-recapture to determine PWRs, a technique borrowed from biology that aims to estimate the number of fish in a closed lake by capturing and tagging some, releasing them, and then capturing more fish. The share of tagged fish that are recaptured is used to estimate the total fish population.
ESD starts with the number of establishments registered with the state UI agency, which was 605 for apples in 2022 (NIACS 111331), down from 965 a decade earlier. ESD estimated there were almost 900 apple employers, including 770 with the most common variety Gala, reflecting the fact that some employers who are registered as cherry growers also grow apples. ESD estimated 200 berry employers, most with blueberries, over 1,000 dark red cherry employers, and 600 pear employers.
There is no way to cross-check the validity of these ESD employer estimates. Some Washington tree fruit farms have apples, berries, cherries and pears, so one establishment in UI data could be four or more employers in ESD estimates.
ESD weights employer responses by peak-week employment. For example, 65 sample employers who harvested Gala in 2022 reported a peak week employment of 1,765 or an average 27 employees each. ESD estimated there were a total of 770 Gala employers with a peak week employment of 22,460, an average 29 employees each.
Estimated peak employment is used to determine the most common payment system, such as a piece rate or hourly plus bonus system. ESD reviews employer responses to identify the pay scheme that applies to the most workers within a crop-variety-activity using the weighted employment estimates. Once the major payment system is found, ESD determines a PWR for that crop-variety-activity if it receives a sufficient number of employer responses.
There were 12 PWRs in 2022, including seven hourly and five-piece rate (three cherry and two pear piece rates). Most employers guaranteed their employees the minimum or AEWR wage during the peak week of a particular activity such as pruning, thinning or harvesting, and most employers reported no minimum productivity standard that workers must satisfy to keep their jobs.
The employee survey was different. A higher share of workers responded to the telephone interview, and most workers reported that they earned piece-rate wages. Workers reported a median $30 piece rate for picking a 900-pound bin of Gala apples, while employers reported a median $29.
DOL on November 14, 2022 issued new regulations that allow PWRs to be based on responses from at least five sample employers who have a total of 30 or more employees, provided that no single employer has more than 25 percent of the sample’s employment. ESD found that one sample employer accounted for more than 25 percent of many apple and cherry activities in 2022.
ESD goes further than DOL and requires a certain share of small, medium, and large employers to respond to its surveys to determine a PWR. Too few employers in each size category responded in most crop and activity combinations to determine PWRs in 2023.
Most SWAs collect data from a sample of employers and weigh the results, so that a sample of 30 strawberry growers who employ 1,000 harvest workers would weight the wages paid by a grower with 60 workers twice as much as a grower with 30 workers. These SWAs aim to obtain PWRs for all strawberries rather than particular varieties, and may distinguish organic and conventional, but not the first versus 5th pick.
ESD aims to determine so many PWRs that the agency cannot obtain sufficient data, an example of the perfect being the enemy of the good.
Wyoming. Over 100 economists meet each August in Jackson Hole to discuss economic policy making. John D. Rockefeller Jr donated much of the land that became the Jackson Hole section of Grand Teton National Park and built the Jackson Lake Lodge in the early 1950s. The Kansas City Fed began to hold an August economics conference in 1978, and has used the Jackson Lake Lodge since 1982. Most of the discussions are private.