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Bipartisan group in U.S. House urges relief for farmers, temporary freeze on rising wages

By Grant Schwab, The Detroit News
Published: May 25, 2024, 5:24am

A bipartisan group of 120 U.S. House members, led by Michigan Republican Bill Huizenga, is pushing for a freeze on minimum wages paid to seasonal farm workers.

The push comes as farmers nationwide have said big recent increases to the federally set wage are endangering their businesses.

“If we do nothing, many of our constituents will be forced to shutter their businesses, despite good-faith efforts to ensure our national food security and feed families across our nation,” the group wrote in a letter to leaders of the House Appropriations Committee that was obtained by The Detroit News.

A bipartisan chorus, especially from members representing agricultural districts, has emerged on the issue. Congress has sought a more permanent solution as the fast-growing H-2A visa program for migrant farmworkers has seen even faster wage growth in the last two years. But after negotiations on a broader reform bill fell apart in the Senate in late 2022, the new letter urgently seeks a temporary fix.

The letter focuses on the “adverse effect wage rate,” which is set by the U.S. Department of Labor and based on data collected through federal surveys on farm labor and pay. The AEWR is a minimum wage rate for seasonal workers meant to stop farms from undercutting American workers by offering lower pay to immigrants.

“The national average AEWR is around $17.55, which is upwards of a mean 5 percent increase over 2023. While the AEWR varies by region, nearly half of all states have an AEWR between $17 and $19 per hour in 2024,” the letter said, citing data from the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“Meanwhile, producers in Canada pay closer to $11 per hour for fieldworkers, or even approximately $1.50 per hour in Mexico. This uneven playing field greatly disadvantages our domestic producers,” it adds.

The letter requests wages be frozen at January 2023 levels through fiscal year 2025. It is signed by 120 members, including 10 Democrats and seven Michigan lawmakers in all.

On the Republican side, that list includes Reps. Huizenga, Gen. Jack Bergman, Lisa McClain and Tim Walberg. Democratic Reps. Dan Kildee, Hillary Scholten and Elissa Slotkin also signed.

Republican Rep. John Moolenaar of Michigan, a member of the House Appropriations committee the letter was sent to, did not sign. But he has shown clear support for the freeze, introducing a bipartisan bill on it in January.

It is unclear if there is bipartisan support for the freeze effort in the U.S. Senate. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, co-sponsored a broader reform bill in March that would temporarily freeze and then cap the AEWR. “If Congress does not fix the flaws in our broken ag labor system,” she said in a statement, “we will continue to fail our farms and farmworkers.”

Several farm lobbying groups nationally support the new House letter, including the Michigan Farm Bureau and groups for specific Michigan crops like asparagus, blueberries, potatoes and apples.

“The Michigan Apple industry is appreciative of the bipartisan effort to freeze H-2A wages for farmworkers, as it shows an understanding of the unsustainable increases in labor costs and overall production costs in agriculture,” said Diane Smith of the Michigan Apple Association.

“Most apple growers are losing money at this point — more than $1,800 per acre, as production costs continue to rise,” she added.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, one of the nation’s biggest agricultural lobbying groups, supported the freeze. The group was previously instrumental in stalling negotiations on broader farm labor reform, according to the immigration policy research group Ideaspace.

The H-2A visa program has soared in popularity over the last 15 years as older farm laborers have aged out of the workforce and Americans have sought more stable, high-earning careers.

There were 489 H-2A workers in Michigan in 2008. That number skyrocketed to more than 15,000 in 2023. Rapid growth finally came to a halt last year, though, as the number of workers dipped for the first time in more than a decade.

Gonzalo Peralta, a staff attorney for the Michigan Immigration Rights Center, said that farm workers — who already face difficult conditions — should not be penalized for harsher economic realities facing agriculture in the United States.

“You have unsafe conditions, you have degraded housing, you have issues of wage theft, employers who are miscounting hours or individual farms or organizations that pay per weight,” he added, during a Monday appearance on WDET’s Created Equal.

But farmers have said a wage freeze is critical to preserving seasonal jobs at all. And even some workers, faced with the choice between stagnating pay and losing work altogether, have told The News they would prefer a freeze from Congress.

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