H-2A (copy)

A USDA pay survey released Nov. 24 foreshadows increases in H-2A minimum wages in 2022.

Minimum wages for seasonal foreign farmworkers will rise by 9% in California and 6.5% in Washington and Oregon based on an annual pay survey released Nov. 24 by the USDA.

California will displace its West Coast neighbors as the state with the highest H-2A wage in the country at $17.51 an hour. The H-2A wage in Washington and Oregon will be $17.41.

The wages purport to reflect average pay for all farmworkers and vary by region. The H-2A floor nationally will average $15.56, a 6.4% increase, the highest percentage in at least a decade.

The U.S. Department of Labor uses the survey to set minimum H-2A wages for the coming year. Farms that hire H-2A workers must pay their U.S. workers the same wage.

Michael Marsh, CEO and president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, said the survey inflates pay by rolling piece-rates, overtime and bonuses into an hourly minimum wage.

The survey’s flaws cause wages to become increasingly disconnected with market economics, he said.

“Farmers and ranchers are going to struggle with these wages and, unfortunately, we’re going to see additional food production move out of the U.S.,” Marsh said.

The wage hikes across the country will be uneven, with most regions seeing smaller increases than on the West Coast.

In Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, the H-2 wage will rise by 0.9% to $14.68 an hour. The lowest H-2A minimum wage will be in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina at $11.99 an hour, a 1.5% increase.

WAFLA executive director Dan Fazio, whose organization obtains H-2A workers for Washington farms, said the 6.5% increase in the Northwest was more than he expected.

He said he thought the wage would be $17 or slightly more an hour. “$17.41 is absolutely devastating,” he said.

Fazio said the H-2A wage hike will inadvertently encourage illegal immigration and the hiring of undocumented workers by increasing the cost of a program that allows foreign workers legal entry into the U.S.

More domestic workers apparently are not available. The Washington Employment Security Department stepped up recruitment to fill farm jobs this year, but found no takers.

“The fact is, we are in a dramatic and unprecedented labor shortage,” Fazio said.

Farms can fill jobs with H-2A workers only after the Labor Department certifies no U.S. workers are available. The number of H-2A positions has increased by 220% since 2010, according to the USDA Economic Research Service.

The Labor Department certified 275,430 jobs in 2020. Some workers filled more than one position. The State Department reported issuing 213,394 H-2A visas.

Florida and Georgia farmers sought the most H-2 workers in 2020, followed by Washington with 26,833 jobs and California with 25,453 jobs.

Through the first three quarters of 2021, Washington was on pace to exceed last year’s total.

Marsh attributed the wage surge in California to overtime pay and the increased use of piece-rate pay, which provides higher wages in exchange for higher production.

California has been phasing in overtime for farmworkers since 2019. Beginning in 2025, all farmworkers will be eligible for time-and-a-half for any hours over 40 that are worked in a week.

Washington will phase in overtime beginning in 2022. The law will be fully in place by 2024.

The H-2A minimum wage, known as the adverse effect wage rate, is meant to keep the use of foreign workers from suppressing pay for U.S. farmworkers.

The agricultural employees council argues the government-set wage is unnecessary. Foreign workers fill farm jobs that would otherwise be vacant and aren’t adversely affecting U.S. workers, the council says.

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