Agricultural associations are upping their efforts to freeze the 2018 minimum wage for H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers throughout next year to avoid likely big increases.

Seventy-two agricultural associations from Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Michigan, Florida, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia along with 31 farms and businesses joined the National Council of Agricultural Employers in a Dec. 3 letter to Senate and House leaders of both political parties.

The letter urges support for any appropriations amendment by Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., freezing the H-2A minimum wage, known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, at 2018 levels throughout 2019 while USDA and the Department of Labor find a better method of determining the AEWR. Specifically, “an accurate and market-based assessment of adverse effect and develop the best means to address it,” Michael Marsh, NCAE president and CEO, wrote in the letter.

“Without immediate action, growers face increases of up to 23 percent in labor costs within the next few weeks,” Marsh wrote.

The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service released a report Nov. 15 showing wage data reported by farmers and ranchers for July and October, 2018 and data from 2017. Estimates from that data are for hourly wages to increase 6.3 percent nationwide and 16 percent, 23 percent and 15 percent in three regions of the Mountain West. Washington and Oregon would go from $14.12 to $15.03 per hour, the highest in the nation.

Meanwhile, the increase in hourly earnings for all U.S. employment is 2.8 percent and crop prices are level or decreasing from prior years, Marsh has said.

The NASS calculations usually are adopted in December by DOL as the 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.

“DOL does not currently measure actual ‘adverse effect’ on U.S. workers but rather uses average wage data from USDA to set a minimum wage for foreign agricultural workers. DOL has no other mechanism right now to alter the methodology,” Marsh wrote. NCAE sent a similar letter seeking the same relief to the secretaries of Agriculture and Labor, Nov. 28.

And Dec. 3, at the Washington State Tree Fruit Association annual meeting in Yakima, Wash., Jim Bair, president and CEO of U.S. Apple Association, said U.S. Apple is working with Tillis on an amendment.

“I can’t make a huge promise but we are working to get that done,” Bair said.

The Oregon Association of Nurseries, Washington Growers League, Washington State Tree Fruit Association, Northwest Horticultural Council, Western Growers, United Fresh Produce Association, U.S. Apple Association, U.S. Sweet Potato Council and the National Christmas Tree Association are among the signers.

Central Washington field reporter

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