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Battle brewing on the farm: Labor Department gives the green light for new rules for temporary farm workers

February 11, 2010 | 10:57 am

In a move that is sure to have the agricultural industry grimacing and labor-rights advocates cheering, the Labor Department is reversing a Bush administration rule that allowed farmers an easier path to hiring temporary or seasonal foreign workers.

The new rule will force growers to make more of an effort to find Americans to fill these jobs of picking crops and other harvest-time roles, as well as increase pay and provide more job-safety protections for the thousands of foreign farm workers who are hired.

The old rule, which affected the H-2A guest-worker program, was adopted shortly before President George W. Bush left office. The Labor Department suspended the regulation in May 2009.

The new rule, slated to begin March 15, will bump up the average pay for temporary farm workers by nearly a dollar per hour. Farmers also will be required to list their job openings on a new online job registry, while state work-force agencies must inspect worker housing before employers can get the nod to hire foreign workers.

Department officials said Thursday the changes were designed to protect the agriculture's most at-risk workers.

“This new rule will make it possible for all workers who are working hard on American soil to receive fair pay while at the same time expand opportunities for U.S. workers,” U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis said in a statement. “The actions that we have taken through this rule-making also will enable us to detect and remedy different forms of worker violations.”

The availability of work in agriculture is clear, say department officials: During fiscal year 2009, employers filed 8,150 labor certification applications requesting 103,955 H-2A workers for temporary agricultural work. The Department of Labor certified 94% of the applications submitted, for a total of 86,014 workers.

The Bush-era rule, which let employers hire foreign workers if they couldn’t find Americans to fill the jobs, sparked a fierce battle across the country's farmlands. Labor advocacy groups railed against the rule for slashing wages and eradicating many key worker protections, such as sanitary housing and safety issues.

Farmers have said they need help easing the hurdles to bring in foreign workers to harvest crops – jobs, they say, domestic workers don’t want and refuse to take. Farm groups have spent months trying to fight efforts by the Obama administration to curtail or modify the rule.

Last year, a group of growers associations – including the National Christmas Tree Assn., the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Assn. and more than a dozen others – filed suit against the Labor Department and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, claiming they could be unfairly prosecuted for labor law violations under new rules.

-- P.J. Huffstutter