Michigan GOP House members introduce bill to lower wages for guest farm workers

Farm workers picking strawberries in California

A bill authored by U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar and co-sponsored by four of his fellow Michigan Republicans would allow agricultural employers to pay temporary guest workers less than the average salary for farm workers. Advocates for farm workers say its passage would be bad news both for guest workers hoping to earn a livable wage and for citizens whose jobs could be imperiled.

Because it is difficult for farm businesses to find enough workers to plant, cultivate, and harvest crops, the federal government offers temporary visas to people who are willing to come from other countries to fill those gaps. Under federal law, the guest workers in the United States through this H-2A visa program are automatically paid at the adverse effect wage rate, a fixed hourly rate determined by averaging what farmworkers are currently being paid in a given state. 

According to a 2012 fact sheet issued by the nonprofit group Farmworker Justice, those pay rates date back more than 60 years and ensure that U.S. workers do not encounter “adverse effects” by having to compete with guest workers who are willing to work for less than the prevailing local wage. 

For Michigan, the wage is currently $18.50 an hour, according to Crain’s Grand Rapids Business. The U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics estimated 5,660 farm, fishing, and forestry workers were employed in the state as of May 2022. 

Moolenaar’s Supporting Farm Operations Act would freeze the hourly pay rate for H-2A visa holders at what it was at the end of 2023 for all of 2024 and 2025. That would mean a $1.16 cut now and no increase for two years. 

His six original co-sponsors include Michigan Republican Reps. Jack Bergman, Bill Huizenga, Lisa McClain, and Tim Walberg. 

“Michigan farmers grow and raise food for Michigan residents and people around the world,” Moolanaar said in a Jan. 19 press release. “My legislation ensures they will continue to have a reliable workforce and can make ends meet while growing the food we need.”

The release notes that the bill is backed by agribusiness groups including the American Farm Bureau, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, and the International Fresh Produce Association.

But farmworkers groups say that the change would harm both guest workers and citizens.

“The adverse effect wage rate is really there to protect both domestic workers and H-2A workers,” Alexis Guild, vice president of strategy and programs for the advocacy nonprofit Farmworker Justice, told the Michigan Independent. “If employers were able to offer H-2A workers wages that are lower than wages offered to U.S. workers, then certainly that would be an incentive for them to turn to the H-2A program and therefore, they would be preferred over U.S. workers. But also those wages also protect H-2A workers as well, because H-2A workers also need wage protections, and they don’t have necessarily collective bargaining or other rights, other avenues to advocate for themselves.”

One farmworker said in an email that Moolenaar’s proposal could directly hurt people like him. Roman Castillo, who harvests cherries in Yakima, Washington, said, “I am very worried about the effort to cut wages for H-2A workers, because it will reduce the wages for us local workers as well.”

He recalled that when he began working in the state in the 1980s, workers could get better wages by striking for a few days until the growers agreed to pay them a fair price. “Now we cannot do this anymore because if we do not agree to work the harvest at the wage they first offer, they can bring in the H-2A workers,” Castillo said. “And so, if they cut H-2A worker wages, they will be able to cut our wages as well.”

“Artificially keeping wages down has immense negative impacts, first and foremost on farm workers themselves,” United Farm Workers communications director Antonio De Loera-Brust told the Michigan Independent in an email. “It’s a straightforward effort by the agricultural lobby to increase their profits at their workers’ expense. Lowering the AEWR would absolutely contribute to the hollowing out of rural communities and to the endemic poverty experienced by farm workers and their families.”

“It is very upsetting to hear that anyone is trying to freeze our hourly wages,” said Orlando Grant, an apple harvester from Jamaica who works in New York on an H-2A visa, in an email. “We work in very harsh conditions. We have to wake up when it’s still dark out to travel long distances to the fields, we’re climbing tall ladders in the slippery rain, we have to wear many layers of clothing to protect ourselves even in the hottest parts of the summer when it can be over 90 degrees, we have to buy our own gear to keep us warm in the bitter cold.”

He also noted how hard it is to be far away from the families he and other guestworkers are supporting and said: “This is a heavy load to bear on top of all the hard work we are already doing in the apple orchards. If anything we should be receiving a wage increase. Cutting our wages is the wrong thing to do to show that our sacrifices are appreciated.”

A Moolenaar spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

According to OpenSecrets, Moolenaar has received more than $600,000 from agribusiness interests over his political career, dating back to 2013. That made it the largest source of campaign cash donated to him, more than from any other business sector. More than $22,000 of those funds came from the Michigan Farm Bureau PAC, according to Federal Election Commission data. The group, which represents agricultural interests in the state, has also endorsed Moolenaar’s bill.

“Because farmworkers are important drivers of the economy, they are important members of our communities, and their wages should reflect that contribution,” said Guild, who noted that 20% of farmworkers in the U.S. live below the federal poverty line. “And they should be able to earn wages that allow them to live and really have the economic security that I think we all strive for.”