The Trump administration has rolled out a new regulation freezing wages for foreign guest workers on U.S. farms until 2023. After that, most guest workers would see smaller pay increases than they would have under the current system, potentially lowering their earnings for years to come.
The change would be a boon to growers and a major setback for the low-wage farmworkers who have been classified as “essential” during the pandemic. The administration projects the change would save agricultural employers $1.68 billion over 10 years by allowing them to pay workers lower minimum wages under the law.
One operation that could benefit directly from the new policy is the Trump family’s vineyard in Charlottesville, Virginia, which has employed foreign workers on H-2A visas in the past. The president’s second-eldest son, Eric Trump, owns Trump Winery.
Workers on H-2A visas come from Mexico and other countries to work temporarily on U.S. farms. H-2A employers must pay them a prevailing wage that the government determines ― known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) ― so they don’t undercut the wages of U.S. workers.
If the new regulation goes into effect, employers like Trump Winery may not have to increase their pay rates for H-2A workers over the next two growing seasons, even though they likely would have under the status quo. After 2023, most farmworkers are likely to see smaller pay boosts because the administration wants to change the source that determines the wage rates.
The proposed regulation serves as a reminder of the endless thicket of conflicts of interest the Trump presidency has created. The Trump family’s extensive business dealings in the U.S. and around the world could factor into countless policy decisions coming from the executive branch.
HuffPost asked the Labor Department if it was concerned about the conflict of interest such a rule creates for the White House. A spokesperson had not commented as of Tuesday afternoon.
Jordan Libowitz, a spokesperson for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit ethics watchdog, said it’s natural to question the motives in any decision the Trump administration makes regarding work visas. The president’s Mar-a-Lago property also avails itself of guest workers, who are hired on H-2B visas.
“This is a thing that could clearly benefit the family business,” Libowitz said. “This is the whole problem with having a president with a bunch of businesses connected to his name. Every decision made by his administration, made by the government, has to be looked at through this lens.”
Businesses that want to use H-2A workers have to petition the government before they can hire them. Trump Winery sought to bring on 23 such workers in 2019, according to Labor Department data. The winery proposed paying them $12.25 ― the minimum pay required at the time under Virginia’s AEWR.
Donald Trump scooped up the winery and estate in 2012 at a bargain price of $6.5 million, then either sold or gave it to Eric, according to the New York Post. The winery’s website says the business is a “registered trade name of Eric Trump Wine Manufacturing LLC, which is not owned, managed, or affiliated with Donald J. Trump or any of his affiliates.”
HuffPost left a message for Trump Winery’s general manager on Tuesday asking if the property plans to hire H-2A workers next year, what the pay rates might be, and whether anyone from the winery ever discussed the H-2A program with administration officials. The message was not returned.
The Labor Department published the new H-2A rule last week just before the election but has not yet enacted it. Worker advocacy groups may try to challenge it in court, and it’s possible an incoming Biden administration will work to reverse it through the rule-making process.
But doing so would take time. Even if the president-elect manages to unwind the rule after taking office, the Trump administration may still have managed to freeze wages for at least the 2021 season.
The minimum pay rates for most H-2A workers are determined by a labor survey of farms done by the Agriculture Department. The agriculture lobby has complained that the survey produces wage rates that are too high, well above the minimum wage in most states. In response, the Trump administration moved to eliminate the survey, and wants to determine the minimum pay rates using a wage index from the Labor Department instead.
An analysis by Daniel Costa, an immigration policy expert at the Economic Policy Institute, found that the survey has produced more robust wage increases than the Labor Department’s wage index would have. Costa said fieldworkers’ wages rose an average of 3.6% each year between 2010 and 2019 based on the survey; under the index proposed in the new rule, they would have risen at an annual rate of 2.3%.
This is a thing that could clearly benefit the family business. Jordan Libowitz, CREW
The text of the rule makes clear it would reduce farms’ labor costs relative to the current system. The administration’s analysis projects that workers would “transfer” an estimated $170.68 million per year to their employers.
BuzzFeed reported last year that businesses that are associated with Trump or carry his name had tried to hire at least 600 guest workers through various visa programs since he launched his presidential campaign in 2015. Critics have mocked the Trump family’s reliance on guest workers because Trump likes to rail that immigrants are stealing Americans’ jobs.
Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, an advocacy group for migrant workers, said Trump has taken different approaches to different guest-worker programs since taking office. Even though his Mar-a-Lago resort uses H-2B workers, Goldstein said, the administration has not increased the number of those visas as much as it could have to benefit the hospitality industry through cheaper labor.
Goldstein said the administration has done more favors to employers when it comes to H-2A workers, perhaps seeing a political benefit to pleasing farmers as a constituency. He also said farmworkers are “less visible” than others, “so it’s easier to inflict harm on them.”
“He’s the ultimate hypocrite,” Goldstein said of Trump.