The middle of a pandemic is a particularly challenging time for low-wage workers to take a pay cut, but the 205,000 farmworkers across the country could face that dire situation next year.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture abruptly decided to cancel its annual survey of farmworker wages, throwing 2021 wage rates for both H-2A temporary foreign workers and their U.S. counterparts into uncertainty — and farmworkers and advocates are scrambling. The survey is used to set what is called the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, or AEWR, that growers must pay to the H-2A workers and to any U.S. workers performing the same job.
The Adverse Effect Wage Rate is designed to prevent agricultural employers from being incentivized to hire foreign labor at lower wages, to the detriment of local workers. Te AEWR is set annually for each state based on the USDA survey. North Carolina’s hourly rate is $12.67 — ranking 34th among all states. (The rates for the Southeast and Deep South are much lower than much of the US; North Carolina is first among those states, tied with Virginia.)
Over the years, there have been many attempts, legislative and administrative, to reduce the AEWR or allow growers to pay lower wages in some other way. It’s possible that H-2A workers could see their pay cut to the federal minimum wage of just $7.25 an hour; North Carolina’s minimum is the same as the federal rate.
Scuttling the wage survey is the latest maneuver to placate the agricultural industry at the expense of the workers who put food on our tables.