Bill sponsored by Cuellar will drastically slash farmworker wages, advocates say

Advocacy groups are denouncing a bill they say will slash farmworker wages by $3. If the federal bill continues to gain momentum, advocates say many farmworkers could soon see their livelihoods deeply impacted.

House Bill 6417, or the AG and Legal Workforce Act, was introduced in July by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and nine other representatives. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) were the only Democrats to sponsor the bill.

Under the proposed bill, employers would be required to pay farmworkers the highest of the following: 115 percent of the federal minimum wage, the applicable state or local minimum wage, or “the actual wage.” Absent from the H.R. 6417 is a concept known as the adverse effect wage rate, and that’s where the cutbacks come in, according to advocates.

“In Texas, the adverse effect wage rate is $11.87 an hour,” Marichel Mejia, the civic participation and policy coordinator of the United Farm Workers, explained. “When that gets eliminated, the next highest wage they’ll get is 115 percent of the federal minimum wage, which is $8.34 an hour, so that is where the $3 cutback comes from.”

Existing regulations of the guest worker program require employers to pay guest workers the highest of the three previously discussed options. Determined by the US Department of Labor, it represents the minimum rate that visiting guest workers need to be paid so as to prevent employers from undermining work wages and working conditions of farmworkers more broadly. According to Mejia, while state and local minimum wages vary across the country and “actual wages” have proven difficult to determine and, thus, to enforce, the adverse effect wage range in almost all cases always guarantees the highest pay. By its omission, Mejia said H.R 6417 opens the doors for a significant income loss for farmworkers, at least a quarter of whom are already living under the federal poverty line.

Although the bill would most directly apply to guest workers, Mejia sustained that it would inevitably affect all farmworkers working in Texas as wages, in general, would likely be driven down.

Juanita Valdez-Cox picketing outside of Rep. Cuellar’s office in Mission opposing H.R. 6417 | LUPE/Facebook

Guest workers wages could be further threatened by various deductions and requirements contained within the bill, including a potential 10 percent withholding of worker’s pay and health insurance requirements that cannot be met by coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Further complicating their situation, Mejia said many employers do not provide workers with the tools that they need to be able to work, so farmworkers have to shoulder these costs out-of-pocket.

“In some instances, when you account for that, farmworkers could be making less than minimum wage,” she told Neta.

On Thursday, about 40 people gathered outside of Rep. Cuellar’s office in Mission to protest his endorsement of the bill. The demonstration was organized by La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) and United Farm Workers Foundation.

Juanita Valdez-Cox, a former farmworker and the executive director of LUPE, pressed on the importance for Congressman Cuellar to meet with people who understand the issues facing farmworkers.

“He is supporting legislation that will hurt farmworkers, that will hurt H2 workers without even having all the information necessary,” she said. “He needs to know who he’s hurting.”

In a phone interview with Neta, Cuellar categorized the claim that H.R. 6417 would decrease Texan farmworker wages by $3 per hour as “wrong.” Referencing the three payment options outlined in the bill, Cuellar stressed that the bill would require employers to pay the highest of the three options specified. He insisted workers current wages would not be negatively affected.

“There [are] no cuts, no cancelation,” he said. “It just says pay them the highest amount that they have. What we are trying to do is get something where we can pay the highest amount across the nation. This is not only Texas.”

When asked about advocates concerns that the current $11.87 wage relies upon the adverse effect wage rate and not “actual wages,” Cuellar said he disagreed, but that the legislative process wasn’t over yet.

“As a legislator, when you file a piece of legislation, you introduce it,” he said. “As we go through committees, as we go through the floor, I myself as a cosponsor, I’d be happy to look at additional language. So if someone wants to give some additional language, I’d be happy to do that.”

Valdez-Cox said her staff made multiple requests to meet with Cuellar to address their concerns over the bill, but they have yet to receive a response from Cuellar’s office.

Farmworker advocates outside Rep. Cuellar’s office in Mission protesting H.R. 6417 | LUPE/Facebook

The Congressman also claimed the bill would afford undocumented farmworkers protections not previously afforded. “So one is to protect them on the pay and number two is that we take them out of the shadows and give them legal status. We don’t want to have those workers be undocumented,” he told Neta. The bill, however, does not provide a pathway towards legal permanent residency or citizenship. The bill grants workers a temporary workers visa that can last for up to 36 consecutive months. After that, workers are required to return to their country of origin. In order to return to the US, workers must be invited back into the country by employers under the same conditions and constraints contained within H.R 6417.

Mejia said she was surprised to see Cuellar sponsoring the bill.

“He did not consult the UFW. He did not consult LUPE, Farmworker Justice, or any farmworker group when he decided to co-sponsor this bill, and that is very, very, disappointing,” she said.

In a written statement, Cuellar also denied the bill would have a broad sweeping effect on all farmworkers in Texas, claiming the “bill requires than employer seek American workers before hiring foreign labor.” Both the UFW Foundation and LUPE classified Congressman Cuellar’s claim as “misleading” given their analysis that the bill will force guest workers from other countries as well as “American workers” to work for lower wages.

More than 3 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers are estimated to be in the US, according to most recently available data. Roughly 360,000 of them are working in Texas.