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New Dept. of Labor wage rules not good for agriculture

By now most Louisiana farmers know that the United States Department of Labor (DOL) has implemented a change in the way that wages are set for the H-2A guest worker program.

It means an unprecedented wage increase for certain groups of guest workers. In some sectors of the American economy, management would simply say, “That’s a problem but we’ll just pass those costs onto the consumers. They’ll absorb the cost increase.”

By Jim Simon
Manager, American Sugar Cane League

Commodity farmers, like sugarcane, corn, cotton, soybean, strawberry, peach, peanut (just to name a few) do not have the luxury of passing new costs on to the consumer. The farmer is a price taker, not a price maker. To put it bluntly, the farmer has to eat it.

It certainly seems odd that the government would take this course of action while the country has been battling inflation. If the Department of Labor makes worker pay too expensive, food production will shift to other countries where labor is cheaper and the same labor that we use now will still be producing our food, but they will be doing it in their home countries and being paid less for it.

There is an irony at work here: the changes to these wage rates are designed so as to not have an adverse effect  on wages for American workers but there is little domestic competition for farm labor jobs. So, who will be affected adversely? Thousands of farmers, that’s who. Certain commodities already have labor costs of 40 percent. How much more adversity can they take? The bigger question: will Americans be willing to pay more for their safe and proven domestic food supply?

Producers are concerned and the American Sugar Cane League is working to build coalitions with other farming groups affected by the proposed rule. The effort will take time, but there is reason for cautious optimism (remember the last farm bill was passed rather quickly when Congress was properly motivated). Bipartisan Congressional legislation, supported by the Louisiana delegation, has been introduced to freeze wage rates at 2022 levels.

Other tactics are in the planning stages. A resolution of disapproval of the DOL rule according to provisions in the Congressional Review Act is being prepared. Another suggestion is to build Congressional support to withhold funding for the implementation and administration of the new rule but certainly nothing positive will be achieved unless we build a large coalition of opposition against the measure.

That coalition is quickly building. The Agricultural Workforce Coalition (AWC) represents over 100 national, state and regional agricultural groups. The League is part of the AWC, but it also includes the American Farm Bureau Federation (and the La. Farm Bureau), National Farmers Union, National Council of Farm Cooperatives, National Council of Agricultural Employers, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, Farm Credit Council and numerous national trade associations that represent wheat, dairy, onions, potatoes, and fruit and vegetable producers. We are all working together to provide a unified voice against this ill-timed rule. In the meantime, write to your Member of Congress is support of American agriculture. Remember, there are few who farm, but everyone eats.

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