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Michigan congressman pushes rollback on migrant worker wages to aid ailing farmers

Michigan apples ripening in the mid-summer sun, not quite ready to be picked
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
Michigan apples ripening in the mid-summer sun, not quite ready to be picked

A Michigan congressman is pushing to roll back a wage increase for migrant farm workers. The wage debate comes as many Michigan farmers are harvesting their crops.

Jim Koan recently drove around his Genesee County apple farm, where he’s been growing apples for half a century.

“I grow about 50 varieties,” Koan said as he pointed at the trees with ripening fruit on both sides of the road. “But some of them are experimental to see where they’re going to fit into my apple growing program.”

For many years, Koan said he relied on autoworkers looking for a little extra income to help harvest his crop.

But starting seven years ago, Koan has used about a dozen migrant workers from Mexico to pick his apples between August and November. They’ve come through the H2A visa program.

The program screens applicants and connects them with farmers in the U.S. It provides needed labor for farmers and ensures travel, lodging and other costs are covered for the migrants.

It also sets a specific wage the migrants will be paid.

This year, the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, or AEWR, jumped 12.8% from last year.

For Koan, that’s too much.

“All of my other costs have gone up. Not as fast as this. This has gone so high,” said Koan. “It’s bleeding us to death.”

Koan has an ally in his congressman. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) has proposed legislation to freeze migrant worker wages under the H2A visa program at 2022 levels. In Michigan, the 2022 AEWR was $15.37 an hour.

“I just was with some growers today and the same thing yesterday, they’re really feeling the pinch and looking for some short-term relief. That’s what we’re trying to provide,” said Kildee.

Kildee filed his pay raise rollback legislation in the spring. At this point, with workers already in the fields, it’s not entirely clear how Kildee’s proposal would affect the migrants’ wages.

Teresa Hendricks is the director of Michigan Migrant Legal Aid. She’s worked for years to assist migrant workers seeking good working conditions and fair pay.

Hendricks said the H2A program is intended to protect migrant workers’ rights — and rolling back their wages would be unfair.

“The workers in order to come here have already been promised a number of things in writing and one is the Adverse Effect Wage Rate of $17.24 an hour,” said Hendricks.

Hendricks said if Congress tries to stop the pay raise, attorneys for migrant workers will take the issue to court.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit has already been filed in federal court in North Carolina asking to block the pay raise from taking effect.

John Kran is with the Michigan Farm Bureau. He said Michigan farmers are struggling with rising costs for everything from fuel to fertilizer. Many are facing a choice of whether they can afford to stay on the farm.

For those relying on migrant workers, Kran said the federally mandated wage increase is a tipping point.

He said the ultimate answer is a comprehensive change to the entire H2A program.

“Now we’re looking at more piecemeal approaches to try to just take some pressure off, keep people in business for a little while,” said Kran, “and allow Congress time. Hopefully, allow cooler heads to prevail to find a solution that works for everybody.”

It’s unclear if Congress will act on Kildee’s bill to freeze migrant worker wage rates before the end of the year.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.