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Judge blocks USDA suspension of farm wage survey

The USDA announced in September it would suspend the survey, claiming other sources of wage data are available.

The USDA will have to go ahead with its semiannual survey of farmworker wages under a ruling issued Wednesday by a U.S. district court judge. Farmworker advocates say the Trump administration, by attempting to abandon the survey, which is ordinarily conducted this month, is trying to depress farm wages.

Information from the Farm Labor Survey (FLS) is used by the Labor Department to set minimum wages for the country’s 250,000 or more H-2A guestworkers, which in turn affects wages for other farmworkers. The USDA announced in September that it would suspend the survey, claiming that other sources of wage data are available.

“Because of the hardships that the public will face if the FLS is not conducted and the (Labor Department) is unable to satisfy its current statutory and regulatory obligations, the court finds the balance of hardships in this cases weighs in favor of granting injunctive relief,” said U.S. Judge Dale Drozd in Fresno, California.

A USDA spokesperson was not immediately available for comment. Drozd issued a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction to prevent the USDA from suspending the survey. The advocacy group Farmworker Justice said the decision means the government must conduct the survey and issue a report on it.

“The USDA’s sudden cancellation of the Farm Labor Survey of employers that sets the principal H-2A wage protection is an end-run around changing the H-2A regulations in a cruel effort to slash farmworkers’ wages,” said Bruce Goldstein, head of the advocacy group. “Farmworkers are among the lowest-paid workers and among the most vulnerable workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The United Farm Workers, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit, said loss of the survey could result in wages for domestic farm workers falling by one-fourth to one-half in some states.

The USDA’s data is used by the Labor Department to calculate the “adverse effect wage rate” (AEWR) for guestworkers, which is intended to prevent them from undercutting the pay of American workers. Without the AEWR, the Labor Department would turn to the state or federal minimum wage if there is no collective bargaining wage or a local survey of prevailing wages for farm labor. Employers are obliged to pay the highest known minimum wage in their area.

As an example, Farmworker Justice said the AEWR is $11.71 an hour in Florida and Georgia. Without it, H-2A workers could have been paid $8.56 an hour in Florida and $7.25 an hour in Georgia.

The lawsuit contended that the USDA failed to provide rationale for the suspension or to give the public adequate opportunity to contest the suspension, reported Courthouse News. The survey has been conducted for more than a century.

“The court sees no reason to infer that defendant USDA lacks the resources for a survey it has been conducting for many years and toward which the (Labor Department) has committed funding until 2022,” said Drozd.

The district court decision is available here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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