CIRS Blog about Rural California

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) certified 165,000 farm jobs to be filled with H-2A workers in FY16, and is expected to certify over 200,000 jobs in FY17. The U.S. Department of State issued 134,400 visas to H-2A workers in FY16, up from 108,100 in FY15 and 55,400 in FY11.

 

The DOL does not generate estimates of the weeks of farm work done by H-2A workers or wages earned by H-2A workers. An analysis of FY12 data, when the DOL certified 85,248 jobs to be filled by H-2A workers, found that the 5,400 employers who were certified offered an average 33 weeks of employment for an average 43 hours a week to H-2A workers. If weeks of U.S. employment are multiplied by the number of workers requested by each employer, the average number of weeks drops to 26, reflecting the fact that several hundred employers offer 52-week sheepherder jobs to relatively few workers.

 

The average AEWR (Adverse Effect Wage Rate) in FY17 was $12.20 an hour or $525 for a 43-hour week. Over 26 weeks, an H-2A worker would earn $13,650 and 100,000 H-2A workers would earn $1.36 billion. If 150,000 H-2A workers are in the U.S. in FY17, their total earnings would be about $2 billion.

 

The DOL sued G Farms of El Mirage, Arizona for housing 69 Mexican H-2A workers in substandard housing and not paying them the AEWR of $10.95 an hour. Santiago Gonzalez grows watermelons and onions near Phoenix, and said he fixed housing problems as soon as the DOL notified him of them, making the DOL's suit unnecessary.

 

Gonzalez admitted that some H-2A workers did not receive the AEWR when they began to work because they were learning how to do the job; G Farms paid piece rates to harvest onions of $0.13 to $0.70 a bag.

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The Los Angeles Times reviewed the status of mechanization in various crops July 21, 2017, emphasizing the large number of prototype machines in development to replace hand workers. From apples to strawberries, tech firms are developing machines to harvest crops.

Asparagus acreage is declining, and many leafy greens are harvested mechanically with knives or water jet cutters. Urban tech firms want radical changes in farming to facilitate mechanization, while firms such as Ramsay Highlander in Salinas stress the productivity gains from incremental changes such as conveyor belts to make hand workers more productive. Machines are being used to plant lettuce so that it does not have to be thinned.

Christopher Ranch, which hires 600 workers to pack and process 90 million pounds of garlic a year at its plant in Gilroy, saw a surge in applications after raising packing shed wages from $11 to $13 an hour in 2017; the firm's minimum wage is scheduled to increase to $15 in 2018. The wages of more skilled packing shed workers rose as well. Christopher uses FLC (Farm Labor Contractor) crews and H-2A workers in the fields, where workers are paid piece rates.

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The number of Braceros admitted to the U.S. between 1942 and 1964 was almost five million. Many Mexicans returned year after year, so one to two million individuals accounted for the five million Bracero admissions.

During the peak year of 1956, over 445,000 Braceros were admitted to work on U.S. crop farms. Many Braceros were in the U.S. only for several months, so that an estimated 126,000 full-time equivalent jobs were filled by Braceros in 1956, a ratio of 3.5 Braceros per FTE job, suggesting that Braceros worked an average 3.4 months each. This average duration of three to four months was stable throughout the 1950s.

The average employment of hired workers on U.S. farms in 1956 was two million, suggesting that 126,000 FTE Braceros were six percent of the average hired farm workforce. Braceros were concentrated in California and other Pacific states, where there were an average of only 300,000 hired workers, making Braceros a third or more of average employment.

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Agriculture has two major sectors, crops and livestock. Crops require the most hired workers, many of whom work seasonally, while livestock employs a higher share of year-round workers. Total crop labor expenditures were $23 billion in 2012, and livestock labor expenditures were $10 billion.

All data sources agree that California has about 30 percent of U.S. crop worker employment, followed by three states with 5 to 6 percent, Washington, Florida and Texas. Two more states have about 3 percent of crop worker employment, Michigan and Oregon, so that over half of crop worker employment is in six states.

The distribution of hours worked in livestock is different. Texas and California each have 10 percent of livestock hours worked, followed by Wisconsin with 6 percent and Iowa and New York with almost 4 percent each, so that one third of livestock hours worked are in the five leading states. Livestock hours are less concentrated than crop hours because there is no California among livestock states.

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California enacted a law in 2016 (SB 3) raising the minimum wage from $10 to $15 an hour by 2022 and requiring farmers to pay 8/40 overtime (AB 1066), that is, 1.5 times normal wages after eight hours a day and 40 hours a week by 2022 (employers with 25 or fewer employees have extra time to comply). The state's minimum wage went to $10.50 an hour on January 1, 2017.

Western Growers surveyed its members in November 2016, and 150 growers reported that they plan to increase mechanization (77 percent) and reduce production of labor-intensive crops in California (33 percent), including 60 growers who hired fewer than 100 workers at peak.

Responding growers reported that their employees worked an average 9.6 hours a day and 56 hours a week at $12.40 an hour, suggesting 5.5 day workweeks. Instead of paying overtime wages, most farms said they will reduce hours to 8/40, so that workers would be employed 16 fewer hours a week. A third of respondents said they would reduce benefits provided to farmworkers because of higher minimum wages and 8/40 overtime by having employees contribute more for heath insurance or reduce employer 401K and retirement contributions.

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