Editor’s Note: The worker interviewed in this piece decided to use his middle name in order to protect his identity.
Imagine waking up every day at 3 a.m., strapped with a ladder, bucket, and machete. For Armando, this has been his life since the age of fourteen as a first-generation Mexican American citizen.
Armando first started picking in the cherry orchards. He remembered the mornings to be cold, but the weather would be blazing hot by the afternoon. He described the positive energy of the field workers yelling ‘Animo!’ – cheer up – while pushing through the intense workload.
Armando grew up in an agricultural town in Eastern Washington where, he explained, politics were rarely discussed. Farmworkers in Armando’s town, like many towns in Eastern Washington, predominantly consist of immigrants – many of whom come from countries that lack sufficient resources or security.
Amidst a pandemic, rain, heat waves, cold winters, and even deadly fires, H2-A workers, undocumented workers, and some of these workers’ children are still required to go to work. They do this without hazardous pay, a retirement plan, or adequate compensation.
“[They] mostly avoid politics, but when it is talked about, it is usually the white farmers [talking],” Armando said. “La raza doesn’t believe that their voice has the power within the U.S., especially under the Trump administration.”
Plenty of changes have happened to the agricultural industry since Trump took office. Whether they knew it or not, the farmworkers were the first to be hit with these drastic policy changes. With a new administration coming to office this election, many are again concerned about what will happen to these workers and farm owners.
The agricultural industry, in particular, has endured a great deal during the Trump administration. Through the trade wars with China, tax reforms, and detrimental immigration policies, the effects of all of these policy changes transformed the agricultural industry. Undocumented and H-2A laborers and farm owners have much at stake with the transition to this new administration.
Washington State makes around $10.6 billion in revenue from the agriculture industry, with the majority of crops being apples, grapes, potatoes, and wheat. This industry provides around 164,000 jobs in the State.
It is common for family farms in Washington to outsource labor to pick and grow these labor-intensive crops. The labor shortage in the agricultural industry is a common issue nationwide. Although a bulk of field workers are undocumented, some arrive with H2-A visas that allow them to legally stay in the U.S. for as long as their employer wants.
The labor of these H2-A workers is why consumers can enjoy fresh produce in grocery stores. Amidst a pandemic, rain, heat waves, cold winters, and even deadly fires, H2-A workers, undocumented workers, and some of these workers’ children must continue to go to work. They do this without hazardous pay, a retirement plan, or adequate compensation.
Farm owners who utilize H2-A workers must follow strict legal guidelines to provide clean and safe housing, specific pay per crate or minimum wage, transportation to and from the worksite, and guarantee employment for a certain amount of time. Violations of any of these criteria can result in fees or lawsuits.
In April, farmworkers in Washington State petitioned the State Supreme Court for being excluded from overtime pay. This case followed the lawsuit of Martinez-Cuevas v. DeRuyter Brothers Dairy, Inc., in which dairy workers fought for both fair working conditions and overtime pay.
Advocacy organizations and unions like United Farm Workers and La Familia Unidas continued after this case to push for overtime pay for agricultural workers. A credit to the success of farmworker activists and lawyers, the Washington State Supreme Court granted all agricultural workers overtime pay.
However, many farm owners fear that this new measure could be detrimental to their end-of-season payday. “There are still many unknowns,” Ignacio Marquez, assistant director of agriculture, wrote in an email.
Agricultural associations, which consist mainly of farm owners in Washington, are currently filing for reconsideration, while the state Supreme Court is still analyzing its decision on overtime pay.
“[Farm owners] are concerned [about] what this means [for their] business and workers. [Farm owners] may have to change what they can offer new workers, as far as wages, but still pay the state minimum rate,” Marquez wrote in an email.
The Martinez-Cuevas suit was a massive win for farmworker advocates, but the work is far from over. Both the UFW Foundation and United Farm Workers are filing lawsuits against Sonny Perdue, the Secretary of Agriculture appointed by Trump. This suit comes after the unexpected September repeal notice of the Farm Labor Survey (FLS) and the Farm Labor Report (FLR) that track the quantity and quality of wages and labor.
The UFW Foundation wrote in a recent blog post that Trump’s repealing of this 100-year survey would lead to wage cuts of domestic and foreign farmworkers, especially in California, Oregon, and Idaho.
In this way, unions like the UFW have much work ahead of them, as workers are fighting for their rights in multiple states – all while continuing to work in unsafe conditions, without overtime pay or adequate housing.
With many policy changes in place by the [Trump] administration, farm worker activists and unions have plenty to go up against with this new administration. Trump’s last chance to change the agricultural industry before the election directly impacted the H2-A program. Before the Nov. 3 election, the U.S. Department of Labor announced a new ruling that would freeze all H2-A workers’ pay for two years. Grossman believes that this rule could be reversed, but could take up to eight months due to the federal rule-making process.
Armando reconciled that even if the new Biden-Harris administration has claimed to help his community, the administration has a lot to prove.
The administration has proposed to undo the majority of Trump’s immigration policies, which has made it difficult for many outside the U.S. to obtain citizenship or seek asylum.
Looking forward to possible reforms of farming practices, climate change, and modifications to the H-2A program, Marquez feels optimistic.
“[Biden’s] administration also supports the Dreamers act, making formal opportunities accessible for millions. This [is] change we all need,” Armando said.
When looking to the future of immigration policy, UFW looks forward to the Agricultural Immigration Reform Bill. This bipartisan bill was recently approved in December 2019 by the U.S. House of Representatives and would permit undocumented agricultural workers and their families to legally stay in the country while working.
Marquez presumes that the [Biden] administration will most likely be in favor of farmworkers. Looking forward to possible reforms of farming practices, climate change, and modifications to the H-2A program, Marquez feels optimistic.
All eyes are on this new administration to prove to voters that they’ll uphold their promises of equity and unity.
Last updated 11/25/2020
Read more Eraced Politics: