Dear Chairman Durbin, Ranking Member Grassley, and other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I thank you for the opportunity to submit this statement for the record for the hearing titled “Immigrant Farmworkers are Essential to Feeding America.”
I am grateful to the Committee for focusing on this important topic at a key time in our nation’s history—namely, during a pandemic that exposed both the importance and vulnerability of the more than two million farmworkers in the United States. The coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic collapse was a difficult time for many workers and families, with hundreds of thousands of deaths and widespread human suffering. While millions of workers were allowed to remain home and work remotely in order to stay safe, the vast majority of workers did not have a remote work option, either because employers did not permit it or because it was simply not feasible.1 One key segment of the workforce that was expected to keep working in order to sustain the food supply chain—but at great risk to themselves and their families—were farmworkers.
Even before the pandemic, farmworkers were employed in one of the most hazardous jobs in the entire U.S. labor market,2 and as EPI research has shown, they suffered very high rates of wage and hour violations.3 In addition, most farmworkers in the United States either lack an immigration status or are employed via a precarious, temporary status through the H-2A visa program. The lack of an immigration status, or having only a temporary status, means that unauthorized and H-2A farmworkers are even worse off because they have limited labor rights, which increases their vulnerability to wage theft and other abuses.4
Unauthorized immigrants who speak up about unfair treatment or abuse in the workplace risk employer retaliation in the form of deportation. In the case of H-2A workers, they are not permitted to change employers and are thus practically indentured to them.5 The half of farmworkers who are unauthorized plus 10% of farmworkers with H-2A visas mean that only 40% of the farm workforce are U.S. citizens and legal immigrants with full rights and agency in the labor market. Having the majority of the farm workforce employed without basic workplace rights in turn puts downward pressure on labor standards for all workers.
As EPI research has also demonstrated, farmworkers are among the lowest-paid workers in the entire U.S. workforce, even lower than other comparable low-wage workers. Farmworkers earned just $14.62 per hour on average in 2020, which is just 60%—or three fifths—of what production and nonsupervisory nonfarm workers earned ($24.67), who are the most appropriate cohort of workers outside of agriculture to compare with farmworkers.6
Farmworkers have very low levels of educational attainment, nevertheless, they still earned even less than the two groups of workers with the lowest levels of education in the United States: Nonsupervisory farmworkers at $14.62 per hour earned 44 cents per hour less than the average wage earned by all workers without a high school diploma ($15.06), and farmworkers earned roughly $5 less per hour than the average wage earned by all workers with only a high school diploma ($20.09).
Many farmworkers employed through the H-2A visas program fared even worse. The wage paid to most farmworkers with H-2A visas—known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR)—was even lower, with a national average of $13.68 per hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But many H-2A farmworkers earned far less in some of the biggest H-2A states. In Florida and Georgia—where a quarter of all H-2A jobs were located in 2020—H-2A workers were paid the lowest state AEWR, at $11.71 per hour.
These data prove that the claim which is often made and repeated by farm employers and agribusiness lobbyists and representatives—i.e., that wages are rising too quickly for farmworkers and that the AEWR for H-2A workers is too high and rising too quickly, and thus not consistent with labor market trends—is not credible and not based on any data or evidence.
There has never been a more urgent need for the Senate to take swift action to protect farmworkers and honor their contributions to the health and well-being of all Americans. I call on this Committee and the entire U.S. Senate to propose and pass legislation that accomplishes the following goals:
- Provides unauthorized immigrant farmworkers with an immediate or quick path to citizenship; and that path should not be one that is contingent upon future years of work completed in the agricultural industry.
- Reforms the H-2A program so that temporary migrant workers can change employers, have protections from retaliation and access to justice, and provide H-2A workers with a quick path to citizenship that migrant workers themselves control by virtue of being able to self-petition for lawful permanent residence.
- Reforms the H-2A program so that wages paid to H-2A farmworkers adequately reflect market rates and do not undercut labor standards. The Senate should reject legislative provisions that would lower H-2A wage rates or freeze H-2A wage rates, either temporarily or permanently; both of which would amount to a significant pay cut for migrant farmworkers.
- Improves workplace protections for farmworkers, including legislation that would better protect them from heat illness, require that they be paid overtime, and provide them with basic labor rights on par with those enjoyed by most workers.
- Provides adequate resources to fund staffing and enforcement at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) and directs WHD to prioritize enforcement in agriculture to better protect farmworkers.
The recommendations made above are based on research, findings, and recommendations published by EPI, which I have either authored or coauthored. Two recent examples of this research are annexed to this statement, which I request be submitted for the record.
Thank you for your consideration and best regards,
Daniel Costa, Esq.
Director of Immigration Law and Policy Research
Economic Policy Institute
1) Daniel Costa, “The farmworker wage gap continued in 2020: Farmworkers and H-2A workers earned very low wages during the pandemic, even compared with other low-wage workers,” Working Economics blog (Economic Policy Institute).
2) Daniel Costa, Philip Martin, and Zachariah Rutledge, Federal labor standards enforcement in agriculture: Data reveal the biggest violators and raise new questions about how to improve and target efforts to protect farmworkers, Economic Policy Institute, December 15, 2020.
1. Elise Gould and Heidi Shierholz, “Not everybody can work from home: Black and Hispanic workers are much less likely to be able to telework,” Working Economics blog (Economic Policy Institute), March 19, 2020.
2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table 1. Incidence rates of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses by industry and case types, 2019,” in Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities, U.S. Department of Labor, last modified November 4, 2020.
3. Daniel Costa, Philip Martin, and Zachariah Rutledge, Federal labor standards enforcement in agriculture: Data reveal the biggest violators and raise new questions about how to improve and target efforts to protect farmworkers, Economic Policy Institute, December 15, 2020.
4. See for example, David Cooper and Teresa Kroeger, Employers steal billions from workers’ paychecks each year: Survey data show millions of workers are paid less than the minimum wage, at significant cost to taxpayers and state economies, Economic Policy Institute, May 10, 2017; Annette Bernhardt, Ruth Milkman, et al., Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations of Employment and Labor Laws in America’s Cities, Center for Urban Economic Development, National Employment Law Project, and UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, 2009; Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Ripe for Reform: Abuses of Agricultural Workers in the H-2A Visa Program, April 2020.
5. See for example, Mary Bauer and Meredith Stewart, Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States, Southern Poverty Law Center, February 19, 2013.
6. Daniel Costa, “The farmworker wage gap continued in 2020: Farmworkers and H-2A workers earned very low wages during the pandemic, even compared with other low-wage workers,” Working Economics blog (Economic Policy Institute), July 20, 2021. For previous years comparing the wages of farmworkers with production and nonsupervisory nonfarm workers, see Economic Research Service, Farm Labor page, at “Wages of Hired Farmworkers,” U.S. Department of Agriculture.