Iowa, U.S. farm workers could see dramatic drop in wages with USDA move, lawsuit says


Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register (IA)

Oct 14, 2020


Thousands of foreign farm workers who spend summers in Iowa fields detasseling corn, picking melons, building animal confinements and caring for millions of pigs and other livestock could see their pay cut in half, according to a lawsuit advocates filed Wednesday.


In the suit filed in federal court, The United Farm Workers and UFW Foundation accuse the Trump administration of trying to undermine the workers' wages. They request a temporary restraining order to stop the U.S. Department of Agriculture from canceling a wage survey that the U.S. Department of Labor uses to help set the minimum hourly pay for hundreds of thousands of the so-called guest workers.


The workers come to the U.S. under the short-term H-2A visa program from countries including Mexico, Brazil and South Africa.


“Massive wage cuts for essential workers cultivating and harvesting our fruits and vegetables during this pandemic are unconscionable,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, which is joining the United Farm Workers in the suit.


The suit claims the USDA violated public rulemaking procedures that are required before making substantive changes to agency policies and programs.


Farm workers are considered essential to keeping the nation fed during the coronavirus outbreak. Goldstein said he believes the Trump administration wanted to cut the wages set under the H-2A visa program and "rather than do it directly" through the program's regulations, officials "decided to terminate the survey in which the wage is based."


The Los Angeles Times has reported that growers' organizations have lobbied heavily against the pay rules as the H-2A program has grown in response to the administration's cuts to legal immigration.


The USDA said it was stopping the survey, which has been used for 100 years, because the public can access other sources for the data. The groups disagree other sources exist.


The USDA didn't immediately respond Wednesday to requests for comment about the suit, which names as defendants U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Undersecretary Bill Northey, Iowa's former agriculture secretary. Northey was visiting the state Wednesday to talk with farmers about crop insurance and coronavirus payments...