A small facet of a once little-known federal program now poses a big threat to many farmers and orchardists across the nation.
The H-2A visa program has for years been used by farms and orchards to obtain adequate numbers of farmworkers for harvest, pruning trees and other chores. The visa allows farmers to hire temporary foreign guestworkers.
To do that, farmers have to scale a mountain of paperwork, advertise the job openings, pay for transportation to and from the workers’ home country and provide housing for them while they are on the job.
The use of H-2A workers has grown exponentially as the supply of domestic workers has dropped, mainly because they are finding jobs in other industries. The number of H-2A guestworkers has grown from 5,318 in 1990 to 242,762 in 2018.
The reason: Farmers cannot find enough domestic workers. They advertise the jobs, but the number of U.S. citizens who are willing and able to work is inadequate. As the Northwest tree fruit industry continues to grow the labor shortage has become even more critical.
Foreign guestworkers appreciate the opportunity to work in the U.S. They make many times more than they would make in their home country. For example, a field worker in Mexico makes about $10.50 a day. The same worker made at least $14.12 an hour in Washington state last year.
By and large, the H-2A program has allowed many farmers to continue when the lack of domestic workers would have otherwise crippled them.
A single aspect of the H-2A program, however, threatens to destroy it and the farmers who use it.
The adverse effect wage rate — known as AEWR — it is the minimum wage the federal Department of Labor sets for H-2A workers in each state. Farmers must pay all of their workers the artificially high AEWR wage.
The problem is H-2A workers don’t adversely affect domestic farmworkers, who are in short supply anyway. But it does hurt farmers, who are stuck paying their employees more than the market would otherwise dictate.
Just this year, the Department of Labor increased the H-2A minimum wage 22.8% in Nevada, Utah and Colorado; 15.9% in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming: and 14.7% in Arizona and New Mexico.
The AEWR is set to increase 6.4 percent, to $15.03 a hour in Oregon and Washington — far above the state minimum wages of $11.25 and $12, respectively.
Compared to the rate of inflation, 2.8%, the AEWR is indefensible and unaffordable, agricultural groups argue.
They are correct. An artificially high wage only puts farmers at risk.
A federal judge recently cited a technicality to rule against farmers who had challenged the AEWR and how it’s set. He found that the lawsuit was beyond the statute of limitations for challenging the rule.
The Department of Labor would do well to rewrite that rule so the AEWR matches a state’s minimum wage.
That’s the only fair way to set a minimum wage in each state.