Every year, thousands of farmworkers come from Mexico to North Carolina on H-2A temporary agricultural worker visas.
They make up around a fourth of the state’s seasonal farm labor force and help produce crops like sweet potatoes and tobacco, Lee Wicker, deputy director of the North Carolina Growers Association, said.
Despite the fact that these workers have been considered essential since the beginning of the pandemic, they faced the possibility of a wage freeze — until a federal judge blocked the move in late December.
Though the freeze was blocked, it was just an additional stressor for an already vulnerable population.
What a wage freeze would mean
The U.S. Department of Labor determines the minimum wage that must be paid to H-2A workers each year. On Nov. 2, the department passed a regulation that would freeze the rate for 2021 and 2022 at the 2020 level. In North Carolina, that’s $12.67 an hour.
United Farm Workers, the nation’s largest farmworkers union, filed a lawsuit against the regulation that argued the regulation would ultimately depress wages for U.S. farmworkers.
“Farm workers have already suffered tremendously as essential workers who must do their jobs during COVID-19 and have been disproportionately devastated by the virus,” Diana Tellefson Torres, UFW Foundation executive director, said in a press release. “They should be getting paid more for risking their lives, not less.”
The case was brought to the U.S. District Court in Fresno, California, where the judge issued an injunction blocking the wage freeze in December, stating the department failed to adequately study whether the rule would lead to wage stagnation.
Balancing perspectives of farmers and workers
Wicker said farmers will know the new wage rate for workers in mid to late February or early March.
He said many farmers who hire these H-2A workers are struggling because wages have been rising fast over the past few years. He said the freeze would have made wages more stable and predictable, better enabling growers to budget labor costs.
“Freezing wages for two years would allow farmers to catch up,” he said. “The workers need to make money, but the farmers have to make money too or the workers aren’t going to have a job.”
But Marc Grossman, a spokesperson for UFW, and Melissa Castillo, a regional coordinator with N.C. FIELD, a nonprofit that works to improve the quality of life for farmworkers in North Carolina, both said a lot of farmers could afford to raise wages — they just may not want to.
While the H-2A program creates jobs for foreign workers and provides needed labor to farms, Grossman said workers can be faced with dangerous working conditions, unsafe housing, little bargaining power and low wages. He said the department's attempt at a wage freeze was frustrating because of how underpaid these workers already are.
“H-2A workers, what we're paying them is ridiculously bad,” she said. “This is regularly listed as one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States, so to be earning less than $13 an hour for the kind of work they're engaged in, it's ridiculous.”
Increased COVID-19 hardships
The prospect of a wage freeze is doubly frustrating because of the hardships farmworkers are facing during the pandemic, Castillo said. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services considers the workers to be a uniquely vulnerable population, and the Center for Public Integrity reported in December that three H-2A workers in North Carolina have died from COVID-19.
Castillo said many more have fallen ill or have lost pay when having to quarantine because farmers don’t always comply with the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which requires workers to receive two weeks pay if they’re sick or have to quarantine.
“If they weren’t working, they weren’t getting paid,” Castillo said.
While the wage freeze was blocked, Grossman and Castillo both said there is still a lot of work to be done. UFW is fighting for federal legislation, approved by the U.S. House of Representatives over a year ago but yet to be considered by the U.S. Senate, that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented agricultural workers.
“It’s their lack of legal status that makes them so vulnerable to being abused,” Grossman said. “If they had legal status, they could do a lot more for themselves.”
N.C. FIELD is focused on getting farmworkers connected with the testing and health care they need, Castillo said.
“So right now, we're just really focused on things like COVID testing and getting vaccines to our workers,” Castillo said.