The minimum wage for H-2A visa foreign guestworkers in Washington and Oregon likely will rise 5.53 percent to $14.12 in 2018, falling from highest to second-highest in the nation.
Hawaii is No. 1 at $14.37 per hour according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service calculations based on a survey of prevailing wages of field and livestock workers by region across the nation. Utah is likely to be the lowest at $10.69, down 2.82 percent from $11.
The NASS calculations usually are adopted in December by the U.S. Department of Labor as the Adverse Effect Wage Rates (AEWRs) for the coming year. The AEWR is above state minimum wages and is intended to prevent wages of domestic workers from being adversely affected by the importation of foreign workers.
In Washington many H-2A workers in tree fruit are paid piece rates that typically are higher than the AEWR. Growers who employ H-2A workers have to use the AEWR as the minimum for all their workers. As the AEWR increases it pushes all wages up increasing growers costs, growers have said.
“I think the AEWR is inflated by the wages reported for supervisors, irrigators and tractor drivers. It’s a never ending cycle because next year the reported wages will include the previous year’s AEWR plus domestic field worker, livestock worker, irrigator and tractor driver wages which will likely continue to increase the AEWR in those states,” said Montse Walker, who left the farm labor association WAFLA in July and started her own firm, AgBusiness Partners. It offers operations management and H-2A compliance.
Washington and Oregon’s AEWR was $13.38 in 2017. California’s was $12.57 and now is projected to go up 4.85 percent to $13.18. Idaho and Wyoming likely will go down 3 cents from $11.66 to $11.63. Nevada and Colorado are estimated to go down 2.82 percent from $11 to $10.69 and Arizona down 4.47 percent from $10.95 to $10.46.
Washington and California are fourth and fifth in numbers of H-2A workers in 2017, according to DOL statistics recently released. Florida, Georgia and North Carolina were the top three, in that order.
Florida’s AEWR next year is likely to be $11.29, up 1.53 percent; Georgia $10.95, up 3.11 percent; and North Carolina $11.46, up 1.69 percent.
Oregon and Idaho do not have surveys to set piece rates but in Washington piece rates are determined by data collected by the state Employment Security Department, Walker said. The survey does not accurately account for tasks which results in highly inflated an inaccurate piece rate wages, she said.
Jennifer Uranga, owner of Mountain West Ag Consulting, Garneill, Mont., said the USDA survey is skewed by not including specific wages for entry-level, low-skilled farm labor and by including jobs not exclusive to farm labor like irrigators, tractor drivers, sprayers, foremen and managers.
“My clients in Idaho’s Treasure Valley were unaware what USDA surveys were used for. Now they are realizing their importance due to their increased participation in H-2A,” Uranga said.
The AEWR may have decreased in Idaho for the second year in a row because high-skilled farm laborers are moving into construction, leaving a farm labor force of H-2A, low-skilled and undocumented workers, she said.
“In Washington, farmers are frustrated and do not think they can continue to operate with such high labor wages. Their margins remain the same while costs for labor, chemicals and other inputs are increasing,” Uranga said.
DOL approved 200,049 H-2A workers for U.S. farms in 2017, up 20.7 percent from 2016 and about 10 percent of the nation’s more than 2 million seasonal ag workers, according the National Council of Agricultural Employers in Washington, D.C.
The H-2A program allows agricultural employers to hire foreign guest workers on temporary work visas to fill seasonal jobs. Employers must show a shortage of U.S. workers in the area and provide housing, transportation and a minimum wage.