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Published February 11, 2010, 12:36 PM

Labor Department approves new rules for farm workers

The Obama administration moved Thursday to increase wages and job safety protections for temporary farm workers.

By: Sam Hananel, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration moved today to increase wages and job safety protections for temporary farm workers, reversing a Bush era policy that unions said fostered cheap labor and undercut domestic hiring.

The Labor Department issued regulations that, among other things, will require growers to make a greater effort to fill crop-picking jobs with domestic workers. Thousands of foreign workers have been hired to do this work in recent years.

Farm owners have vehemently opposed changes to the H-2A Guest Worker Program since the current administration first attempted to reverse the rules last year. Growers claim the new regulations would make it more burdensome and expensive to hire foreign workers for physically grueling jobs that most Americans don’t want.

But labor and immigrant rights groups claimed the Bush administration regulations had the effect of depressing wages and made it harder for domestic workers to apply for the jobs.

A lawsuit from farm owners last year stopped the Labor Department from immediately suspending the Bush regulations and forced officials to go through a lengthier notice and comment period for making changes.

The new rules, which take effect on March 15, increase the average wage for temporary farm workers by about a dollar an hour. Farm owners must also post farm jobs on a new electronic job registry to make sure domestic workers get first dibs.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said the changes reflect the administration’s commitment “to providing fair wages and strong labor protections for the most vulnerable groups of workers.”

Under the new rules, for example, state work force agencies must inspect the quality of temporary worker housing before an employer can gain approval to bring in foreign workers.

Growers had asked the Bush administration to ease hiring rules they said were so time-consuming that farmers sometimes had to let crops rot in the fields because they couldn’t find enough workers at harvest time. The new rules would retain some of the efforts to streamline processing times, but not enough to satisfy growers.

“The bottom line is we’re going to see a major reduction in utilization of the H2-A program, particularly among smaller growers,” said Jason Resnick, general counsel for the Western Growers Association in Irvine, Calif.

“You’re going to see more outsourcing and moving of production abroad where workers are more readily available.”

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On the Net:

U.S. Department of Labor: http://www.dol.gov

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