Labor

Farm Office Team on Zoom Webinar
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Wednesday, July 14th, 2021

"Farm Office Live" returns this summer as an opportunity for you to get the latest outlook and updates on ag law, farm management, ag economics, farm business analysis, and other related issues.  Targeted to farmers and agri-business stakeholders, our specialists digest the latest news and issues and present it in an easy-to-understand format.

The live broadcast is presented monthly.  In months where two shows are scheduled, one will be held in the morning and one in the evening.  Each session is recorded and posted on the OSU Extension Farm Office YouTube channel for later viewing.

Current Schedule:

July 23, 2021 10:00 - 11:30 am  December 17, 2021 10:00 - 11:30 am 
August 27, 2021 10:00 - 11:30 am  January 19, 2022 7:00 - 8:30 pm 
September 23, 2021 10:00 - 11:30 am  January 21, 2022 10:00 - 11:30 am 
October 13, 2021 7:00 - 8:30 pm  Februrary 16, 2022 7:00 - 8:30 pm 
October 15, 2021 10:00 - 11:30 am  February 18, 2022 10:00 - 11:30 am 
November 17, 2021 7:00 - 8:30 pm  March 16, 2022 7:00 - 8:30 pm 
November 19, 2021 10:00 - 11:30 am  March 18, 2022  10:00 - 11:30 am 
December 15, 2021 7:00 - 8:30 pm  April 20, 2022 7:00 - 8:30 pm 

Topics we will discuss in upcoming webinars include:

  • Coronavirus Food Assitance Program (CFAP) 
  • Legislative Proposals and Accompanying Tax Provisions
  • Outlook on Crop Input Costs and Profit Margins 
  • Outlook on Cropland Values and Cash Rents 
  • Tax Issues That May Impact Farm Businesses 
  • Legal Trends
  • Legislative Updates
  • Farm Business Management and Analysis
  • Farm Succession & Estate Planning
 

To register or to view a previous "Farm Office Live," please visit https://go.osu.edu/farmofficelive. You will receive a reminder with your personal link to join each month. 

The Farm Office is a one-stop shop for navigating the legal and economic challenges of agricultural production. For more information visit https://farmoffice.osu.edu or contact Julie Strawser at strawser.35@osu.edu or call 614.292.2433

The United States Supreme Court building
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Friday, July 09th, 2021

Perhaps it’s an overused phrase but “sometimes you win, sometimes you lose” has relevance to agriculture lately.  It’s a fitting response to several new decisions from the federal courts.  Some of the decisions align with positions advocated by agricultural interests but others do not.  We wrote last week about a case in the “sometimes you lose” category--the Court’s ruling in favor of small refineries claiming exemptions from renewable fuels mandates.  Several members of Congress have already proposed legislation that would nullify the Court’s decision in that case.  A second loss came with a challenge to California’s animal welfare standards and a third with the court striking down a waiver of E15 ethanol blends.  The sole win came with a challenge to a California statute allowing union organizing activities on private property.  Here’s a summary.

California Proposition 12 – North American Meat Institute v. Bonta

The U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would not grant certiorari and review a decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ on California Proposition 12.  Voters approved Proposition 12, the “Prevention of Cruelty to Farm Animals Act,” in 2018.  The Act establishes housing standards for egg-laying hens, breeding hogs and veal calves and prohibits the confinement of animals in spaces that don’t meet the standards.  Business owners and operators in California may not sell meat or egg products from animals that are not confined according to the standards.  Standards for calves (43 square feet) and egg laying hens (1 square foot) became effective in 2020 while standards for breeding pigs and their offspring (24 square feet) and cage-free provisions for egg laying hens are to be effective beginning January 1, 2022.

The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) sought a preliminary injunction against Proposition 12 in 2019, arguing that it violates the Interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which grants only Congress the authority to regulate commerce among the states.  NAMI claimed that the Act establishes a “protectionist trade barrier” that would protect California producers from out-of-state competition and control conduct outside of its state borders. 

Both the federal District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with NAMI.   The appellate court affirmed the District Court’s conclusions that Proposition 12 is not discriminatory on its face and does not have a discriminatory purpose or effect, as there was no evidence that the state had a protectionist intent and the Act treats in-state and out-of-state producers the same.  Nor does the Act try to directly regulate out-of-state conduct or impose burdens on out-of-state producers, but instead only precludes sale of meats resulting from certain practices, the courts concluded.  The federal government and 20 states joined NAMI in a request for a rehearing of the case by the full panel of judges on the Ninth Circuit but were unsuccessful.

NAMI turned to the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking a review of the case on the basis that the Ninth Circuit’s decision conflicts with holdings by other appellate courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court denied the request for review on June 28, offering no explanation for its decision.  The legal challenges to Proposition 12 do not end with that denial, however.  A separate case filed by the National Pork Producers Association and American Farm Bureau Federation is pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  It also argues that Proposition 12 negatively impacts interstate commerce and will increase consumer costs for pork and that the federal district court judge who dismissed the case failed to examine the practical effects the law would have on producers.  The Ninth Circuit heard the appeal in April, so we may see a decision in the next few months.

E15 waiver:  American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers v. EPA

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held in favor of a claim by the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM) challenging a Trump Administration rule in 2019 that waived restrictions on summer sales of E15 due to higher fuel volatility in summer temperatures.  The decision could mean that current sales of E15 must end unless further legal challenges follow.

The 2019 Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) waiver for E15 allowed fuel stations to sell 15% ethanol blends during the summer months rather than limiting those sales to 10% ethanol, a move that would increase ethanol sales.   As expected, the oil and gas refining industry responded to the waiver issuance with a legal challenge, arguing that the administration lacked the authority to grant the RVP waiver for fuels over 10% ethanol. 

The volatility waiver authority derives from the Clean Air Act, which establishes when the EPA may alter volatility limits through the waiver process and specifically allows the EPA to grant an ethanol waiver for “fuel blends containing gasoline and 10 percent denatured anhydrous ethanol” in Section 745(h)(4).  The EPA relied upon the ethanol waiver language in the Clean Air Act back in 1992 to waive volatility standards for E10.  But whether the EPA could use the Clean Air Act language to issue a waiver for ethanol beyond 10 percent is the question at the heart of the dispute.  The EPA and intervenors in the case representing biofuel interests claimed the language was ambiguous enough to allow the EPA to grant waivers for fuel with 10% ethanol or more.

In a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeals concluded that “the text, structure, and legislative history” of the Clean Air Act do not allow EPA to extend a waiver to E15.  The court found the statutory language straightforward, lacking any modifiers that would establish a range of ethanol blends rather than the 10 percent stated in the statute.  Legislative actions at the time also supported an interpretation that the 10 percent language addressed E10 and not ethanol blends in excess of 10 percent. 

The next critical question for this case is what the Biden Administration EPA will do with case and the E15 waiver.  A request for further review of the D.C. Circuit’s opinion is possible.  Or perhaps the EPA will pursue a legislative fix that increases the statutory reference from 10 percent to 15 percent ethanol.  And it’s always possible that no further action will occur and E15 summer sales will no longer be an option.

Union organizer access as a taking – Cedar Point Nursery v Hassid

In the “win” column for agricultural employers is a case that asks whether a state regulation granting access to private property for union activities is a “taking” of property under the Constitution.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s answer to the question is “yes,” although three of the Justices dissented from the majority opinion. 

A regulation formed under the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 gives labor organizations a “right to take access” to an agricultural employer’s property “for the purpose of meeting and talking with employees and soliciting their support.”  The regulation requires agricultural employers to allow union organizers to be on the property up to three hours per day and four 30-day periods per year but cannot be “disruptive” and must provide written notice to employers.   An employer who interferes with the organizers can be subject to sanctions. 

After representatives from United Farm Workers accessed Cedar Point Nursery and engaged in disruptive conduct and sought to access Fowler Packing Company, both occasions without notice to the employers, the companies filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction from the federal District Court.  They argued that the regulation was a physical taking of their properties because it granted an easement to the union organizers, which required compensation under the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments of U.S. Constitution.

The District Court did not grant the injunction and held that the regulation is not a physical taking because it doesn’t allow the public a permanent and continuous right of access to the property for any reason.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision, agreeing that it wasn’t a physical taking, but a strong dissent argued that the union activities were a physical occupation and taking of property.  The agricultural companies sought but were denied a hearing before all of the Ninth Circuit judges, leading to a request for review granted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The majority of the Justices concluded that the California regulation is a physical taking because it grants union organizers a right to invade an agricultural employer’s property.  Particularly important to the majority was the regulation’s removal of an owner’s right to exclude people from their private property, which is a “fundamental element” of property rights according to the Court.  The Court rejected the argument that the access must be continuous and permanent to be a physical taking and dispensed with claims that the holding could endanger regulations that allow government entries onto private land.  The Court’s holding was clear:  the access regulation amounts to simple appropriation of private property.

Read the court opinions in these three cases here:

Ninth Circuit’s Opinion North American Meat Institute v. Becerra/Bonta

American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers v. EPA

Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid

Cicada on a fingertip by Joe Boggs
By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Friday, June 18th, 2021

Did you know that a housefly buzzes in the key of F?  Neither did I, but I think the musical stylings of the Cicada have stolen the show this summer. 

Aside from Mother Nature’s orchestra, federal agencies have also been abuzz as they continue to review the prior administration’s agencies’ rules and regulations.  This week’s Ag Law Harvest is heavily focused on federal agency announcements that may lead to rule changes that affect you, your farm or business, or your family.

USDA issues administrative complaint against Ohio company.  The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (“AMS”) issued an administrative complaint on May 4, 2021,  against Barnesville Livestock LLC (“Barnesville”) and an Ohio resident for allegedly violating the Packers and Stockyards Act (“P&S Act”).  An investigation conducted by the AMS revealed that the Ohio auction company failed to properly maintain its custodial account resulting in shortages of $49,059 on July 31, 2019, $123,571 on November 29, 2019, and $54,519 on December 31, 2019.  Companies like Barnesville are required to keep a custodial account under the P&S Act.  A custodial account is a trust account that is designed to keep shippers’ proceeds from the sale of livestock in a secure and centralized location until those proceeds can be distributed to the seller.  According to the AMS, Barnesville failed to deposit funds equal to the proceeds received from livestock sales into the custodial account. Additionally, Barnesville reported a $15,711 insolvency in its Annual Report submission to AMS.  Operating with custodial account shortages and while insolvent are both violations of the P&S Act.  The AMS alleges that Barnesville’s violations place livestock sellers at risk of not being paid fully or completely.  If Barnesville is proven to have violated the P&S Act in an oral hearing, it may be ordered to cease and desist from violating the P&S Act and assessed a civil penalty of up to $28,061 per violation.  

USDA to invest $1 billion as first investment of new “Build Back Better” initiative.  The USDA announced that it will be investing up to $1 billion to support and expand the emergency food network so food banks and local organizations can serve their communities.  Building on the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDA looks to enter into cooperative agreements with state, Tribal, and local entities to more efficiently purchase food from local producers and invest in infrastructure that enables organizations to more effectively reach underserved communities.  The USDA hopes to ensure that producers receive a fair share of the food dollar while also providing healthy food for food insecure Americans.  This investment is the first part of the USDA’s Build Back Better initiative which is focused on building a better food system.  Build Back Better initiative efforts will focus on improving access to nutritious foods, address racial injustice and inequity, climate change, and provide ongoing support for producers and workers.

Colorado passes law changing agricultural employment within the state.  On June 8, 2021, Colorado’s legislature passed Senate Bill 87, also known as the Farmworker Bill of Rights, which will change how agricultural employees are to be treated under Colorado law.  The bill removes the state’s exemption for agricultural labor from state and local minimum wage laws, requiring agricultural employers to pay the state’s $12.32/hour minimum wage to all employees.  Under the new law, agricultural employees are allowed to organize and join labor unions and must also be paid overtime wages for any time worked over 12 hours in a day or 40 hours in a week.  The bill also mandates certain working conditions including: (1) requiring Colorado’s department of labor to implement rules to prevent agricultural workers from heat-related stress, illness, and injury when the outside temperature reaches 80 degrees or higher; (2) limiting the use of a short-handled hoe for weeding and thinning in a stooped, kneeling, or squatting position; (3) requiring an agricultural employer give periodic bathroom, meal, and rest breaks; and (4) limiting requirements for hand weeding or thinning of vegetation.  Reportedly, Colorado’s Governor, Jared Polis, is eager to sign the bill into law. 

Wildlife agencies release plan to improve Endangered Species Act.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) have released a plan to reverse Trump administration changes to the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”).  The agencies reviewed the ESA following President Biden’s Executive Order 13990, which directed all federal agencies to review any agency actions during the Trump administration that conflict with the Biden-Harris administration objectives.  The agencies look to reverse five ESA regulations finalized by the Trump administration which include the FWS’ process for considering exclusions from critical habitat designations, redefining the term “habitat,” reinstating prior regulations for listing species and designating critical habitats, and reinstating protections under the ESA to species listed as threatened.  Critics of the agencies’ plan claim that the current administration’s proposals would remove incentives for landowners to cooperate in helping wildlife.  

EPA announces intent to revise the definition of “waters of the United States.”  On June 9, 2021, the EPA and the Department of the Army (the “Agencies”) announced that they intend to change the definition of “waters of the United States” (“WOTUS”), in order to protect the nation’s water resources.  The Agencies’ also filed a motion in a Massachusetts federal court requesting that the court send the Trump administration’s Navigable Water Protection Rule (“NWPR”) back to the Agencies so they can initiate a new rulemaking process to change the definition of WOTUS.  In the motion, the Agencies explained that pursuant to President Biden’s Executive Order 13990, they have reviewed the necessary data and determined that the Trump administration’s rule has led to significant environmental harm.  The Agencies hope to restore the protections that were in place prior to the 2015 WOTUS rule.  According to the EPA, the Agencies’ new regulatory process will be guided by: (1) protecting water resources and communities consistent with the Clean Water Act; (2) the latest science and the effects of climate change on the nation’s waters; (3) practical implementation; and (4) the experience and input of the agricultural community, landowners, states, Tribes, local governments, environmental groups, and disadvantaged communities with environmental justice concerns.  The EPA is expected to release further details of the Agencies’ plans, including opportunity for public participation, in a forthcoming action.  To learn more about WOTUS, visit https://www.epa.gov/wotus.

Young girl driving a lawn mower
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Monday, June 14th, 2021

Written by Peggy Kirk Hall and Jeffrey K. Lewis

School is out and youth employment is in.  As more and more youth turn to the job market during summer break, now is a good time to review the laws that apply to youth working in agricultural situations.  Here’s a quick refresher that can help you comply with youth employment laws.  For additional details and explanation, refer to our law bulletin on “Youth Labor on the Farm: Laws Farmers Need to Know.

  1. The agricultural “exemption” applies only to your children and grandchildren.  Many farmers know that there are unique exemptions for agricultural employers when it comes to employment law.  Youth employment is no different.  In Ohio, youth employment laws do not apply to children working on a farm owned or operated by their parent, grandparent, or legal guardian.   This means that your children, grandchildren, and legal guardianship children working on farms you own or operate may perform tasks that are considered “hazardous,” receive a wage less than federal and state minimum wage and work longer hours.  Keep in mind that this exemption does not apply to youth who are your cousins, nieces, nephews, and other extended family members—those family members are subject to youth employment laws. 
  2. Lawn mowing and similar tasks are special.  Ohio Revised Code § 4109.06(9) explicitly states that youth engaged in “lawn mowing, snow shoveling, and other related employment” are not subject to Ohio’s youth employment laws.  This means that farms may hire youth to mow the grass and do similar tasks around the farm without having to comply with labor laws regarding working hours and wage requirements. 
  3. Treat youth like adults for verification, workers compensation and taxes.  The law doesn’t deal with youth uniquely when it comes to Form I-9 employment verification, workers compensation coverage, and withholding taxes.  A farm employer must complete these same requirements for youth employees.
  4. Don’t start them too young.  Minimum working age is a tricky area of law.  Federal law allows youth under the age of 14 to be employed as long as certain requirements are met, such as having written parental consent and limiting work hours and tasks.  States may preempt federal law by being more restrictive.  Ohio law, however, doesn’t address youth under 14 and doesn’t explicitly permit or prohibit them from being employed.  Be aware that the Ohio Department of Commerce has stated that it interprets this silence in Ohio law as a prohibition against employing youth under 14.  This creates a compliance risk for employers who want to employ a youth under 14, as Ohio may deem that a violation of state law.  Before hiring youth under 14 for jobs other than the specifically exempted tasks of lawn mowing, snow shoveling or similar work, consult with your attorney.
  5. Keep younger youth away from “hazardous” jobs.  State and federal laws are clear on this point:  youth under the age of 16 cannot perform “hazardous” tasks.  This restriction includes operating heavy machinery with moving parts, working inside silos and manure pits, handling toxic chemicals, working with breeding livestock, sows and newborn calves, and other dangerous tasks.  An exception is that 14- and 15-year-olds may operate tractors and other machinery if they have a valid 4-H or vocational agricultural certificate of completion for safe tractor and machine operation.  See the complete list of prohibited hazardous tasks in our law bulletin on “Youth Labor on the Farm: Laws Farmers Need to Know.” 
  6. Don’t make them work too early or too late.  During the summer months, youth between 16 and 18 years of age may work as early or as late as needed.  Youth under the age of 16, however, may not start work before 7 am or work past 9 pm.
  7. Give the kids a break.  If youth are working longer hours, you must give them a break from working.  All youth under the age of 18 must receive a 30-minute break for every 5 hours worked.
  8. Know how much to pay.  If a farm grossed less than $323,000 in 2020, the employer must pay employees the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. If the farm grossed more than $323,000 then the employer must pay employees the Ohio minimum wage of $80.  Two exemptions allow a farmer to pay less than both the federal and state minimum wage to youth.  If the farm is owned or operated by a youth’s parent, grandparent, or legal guardian the minimum wage requirements do not apply.  Second, if the farm is a “small farm,” which means that the farm did not use more than 500 man-days of agricultural labor during any calendar quarter of the preceding year, then the farm is not required to pay the federal or state minimum wage to any youth employed on the farm.  
  9. Sign a wage agreement.  This requirement catches many employers off guard.  Ohio law requires that before any youth can begin work, the youth and the employer must sign a wage agreement.  Be sure to keep this signed agreement with the youth’s employment records.  A sample wage agreement from the Ohio Department of Commerce is available here
  10. Do your recordkeeping.  Just as you would with other employees, maintain a file on each of your youth employees.    The file should include the youth’s full name, permanent address, and date of birth, the youth’s wage agreement, and any 4-H or vocational agricultural certificates.  Also keep time slips, payroll records, parental consent forms, and name and contact information of youth’s parent or legal guardian.

Summer is a hot time to employ our youth and school them about farming and farm-related businesses.  But don’t let legal compliance ruin your summer fun.  If you have youth working on the farm and have concerns about any of the items in this quick overview, be sure to talk with your attorney.  Doing so will ensure that the summer job is a good experience for both you and your young employees.

 

By: Jeffrey K. Lewis, Friday, April 30th, 2021

The final day of April is already here!  Spring feels like it has finally arrived and planting season is in motion across Ohio.  Just like farmers in the field, legislatures, government bodies, and courts across the country are hard at work addressing critical agricultural and resource law issues.  We've gathered a collection of those issues for this Ag Law Harvest. 

Debt relief for socially disadvantaged farmers is in the works.  The USDA has announced its plans for implementing debt relief to socially disadvantaged producers mandated by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 that Congress passed in March.  The payments will be 120% of any outstanding Farm Service Agency Direct and Guaranteed Farm Loans and Farm Storage Facility Loans held by a socially disadvantaged farmer on January 1, 2021.  The additional 20% on top of the loan balance is for tax liabilities associated with the payment, as it will be considered income.  For purposes of this debt relief program, a “socially disadvantaged producer” is one who is Black or African American, American Indian, Alaskan Native, Hispanic or Latino, Asian American or Pacific Islander.  A producer must indicate the identification on the Customer Data Worksheet, USDA Form AD-2047, filed with the FSA.   Producers who fit into the socially disadvantaged producer definition can update those forms now with the local FSA office.  No other action by a producer who is eligible for the debt relief is necessary, as the FSA will notify producers of the payoff process as it occurs.  For more information, visit this webpage for the USDA’s American Rescue Plan Debt Payments.

Missouri’s Truth in Labeling Law.  In 2018, Missouri enacted a law making it a criminal offense to “misrepresent a product as meat that is not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.”  Violators could potentially face up to one year in prison and/or a fine up to $2,000.00.  Shortly after the law went into effect, Turtle Island Foods Inc., a business that makes Tofurky (an alternative meat product) and advocacy groups such as the Animal Legal Defense Fund (collectively the “Plaintiffs”), filed a lawsuit challenging Missouri’s law on the grounds that the law violated the U.S. Constitution including the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Dormant Commerce Clause.  The district court denied Plaintiffs’ request for an injunction determining that Missouri’s law only prohibits companies from misleading consumers.  Plaintiffs then appealed to the federal circuit court.  Last month the Eighth Circuit Court issued its opinion and agreed with the district court.  However, the Eighth Circuit noted that the facts of this specific case did not support overturning Missouri’s law, but that facts and circumstances of another case may provide otherwise.  As it stands, Missouri’s law remains in full force and effect. 

Renewable Fuel Standard deadlines extended.  The EPA issued its final rule extending deadlines for obligated parties to comply with Renewable Fuel Standard deadlines for 2019 and 2020.  Under the extension, small refineries must submit 2019 compliance forms by November 30, 2021, and their associated attest engagement forms by June 1, 2022.  For 2020, obligated parties must submit their compliance documents by January 31, 2022, and their associated attest engagement reports by June 1, 2022.  Lastly, the EPA extended the deadline for obligated parties to submit attest engagement reports for 2021 to September 1, 2022, the deadline for 2021 compliance documents remains unchanged. 

Ohio man sentenced for stealing grain.  How often do you hear of farmers being victims of theft and a criminal on the run?  Well, last month an Ohio man was sentenced to one year in prison and 5 years of probation after stealing over $94,000.00 in harvested grain.  The defendant took his employer’s gravity wagon full of grain and sold it to a local co-op in Ashland County under false pretenses.  After the theft was discovered, the defendant fled from Ohio, eventually having to be extradited from New Mexico.  This case demonstrates just how vulnerable farmers are to potential crimes.  For more information on intentional harm to farm property and your rights, check out our law bulletin.

Iowa passes agricultural trespass law.  Iowa lawmakers have recently passed a new law that will make certain types of trespass on Iowa farms a criminal offense in an effort to stop animal activists and others from secretly documenting activities.  House File 775 makes it illegal to take soil or water samples and samples of an animal’s bodily fluids or other byproducts.  Additionally, the law makes it a crime to place or use a camera on the farm property without the owner’s consent.  Proponents of the law argue that such laws are necessary to protect private property rights and prevent bioterrorism.  Opponents of the bill are expected to challenge the law on First Amendment grounds.  

USDA discussing current issues surrounding shipping U.S. agricultural exports.  USDA had a meeting with the U.S. Department of Transportation and agricultural stakeholders to discuss the challenges of exporting U.S. agricultural products.  Challenges arose in the fall of 2020 and have only continued to get worse.  With the resurgence of international trade, nearly every sector of the supply chain has been under stress, including warehousing, trucking, rail service, container availability, and vessel service.  Farmers have long struggled with finding a market for their products and getting a fair price for their work.  With worldwide markets opening back up, the USDA and the Department of Transportation are hard at work trying to ensure that U.S. farm products reach consumers across the globe. 

Farmers to Families Food Box program to end May 31, 2021.  As part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program announced in April 2020, the Farmers to Families Food Box program was designed and implemented as a temporary relief effort to purchase produce, dairy, and meat products from American farmers and distribute these products in family-sized boxes to Americans in need.  In a letter to stakeholders, the USDA announced that due to the improving economy and the access food insecure Americans have to expanded federal nutritional programs like SNAP, WIC, P-EBT, and more, the need for the Farmers to Families Food Box program no longer exists.  The USDA also stated that the lessons learned from the Farmers to Food Box program will continue to be implemented in current and future programs.  The USDA has already begun to offer a fresh produce box on a temporary basis through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and is in the process of designing a Dairy Donation Program to facilitate the timely donation of dairy products to nonprofit organizations that distribute food to persons in need and to help prevent and minimize food waste. 

Grant program to enhance the waters of Lake Erie.  The Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) has announced that the USDA has awarded ODA’s Division of Soil and Water Conservation a five-year, $8-million grant to help improve the water quality in Lake Erie.  The program will reinforce Governor Mike Dewine’s H2Ohio initiative by assisting farmers in developing nutrient management plans and conservation practices.  The grant will be available to farmers in Crawford, Erie, Huron, Marion, Ottawa, Richland, Sandusky, Seneca, Shelby, and Wyandot counties.  Farmers can start applying for the program through their local soil & water district office later this summer.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags replacing the branding iron?  Last year the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service proposed to approve a rule that would require using  RFID eartags for use on cattle that move across state lines.  While the rule has not yet been finalized, the proposed rule, which is supposed to take effect January 2023, has not been free of controversy.  The USDA believes the use of a RFID tag will provide the cattle industry with the best protection against the rapid spread of animal diseases. Some farmers, on the other hand, feel they should be able to use currently approved methods to maintain their cattle.  To fight for their right, the Ranchers Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF) has filed a lawsuit in a Wyoming Federal Court on behalf of some Wyoming cattle producers.  R-CALF argues that the USDA has improperly used advisory committees to create new rules in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act and the Federal Advisory Committee Act.  Essentially, R-CALF argues that neither the USDA nor its subcommittees followed correct procedure as required by federal law in order to create this proposed RFID rule.  R-CALF seeks to prevent the USDA from using the recommendations obtained from the subcommittees in violation of federal law and in its place ask the court to require the USDA to revisit the RFID eartag issue with subcommittees that are compliant with federal law.  

All farm employees are set to receive overtime pay in the state of Washington.  Last November the Washington Supreme Court ruled that Washington’s exclusion of dairy workers from overtime pay was in violation of the state’s constitution.  Since the Washington Supreme Court ruling, several class-action lawsuits were filed against Washington dairy farmers for unpaid overtime hours, threatening to wipe out the Washington dairy industry.  Fearing the worst, Washington legislators worked diligently to pass Senate Bill 5172 ending the overtime exemption for all of agriculture and to make the transition for agricultural employers as smooth as possible.  The prevents lawsuits for unpaid overtime from being filed after the Washington Supreme Court decision and to phase in overtime in the agriculture industry.  Beginning in 2022, agricultural employees will be paid overtime for time worked over 55 hours in any one workweek and by 2024, employees shall be paid overtime for any time worked over 40 hours in any one workweek. Senate Bill 5172 awaits the Washington Governor's signature. 

 

By: Ellen Essman, Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019

Written by: Ellen Essman and Peggy Hall

October is almost over, and while farmers have thankfully been busy with harvest, we’ve been busy harvesting the world of ag law.  From meat labeling to RFS rules to backyard chickens and H-2A labor certification, here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news you may want to know:

Federal judge upholds Missouri’s meat labeling law—for now.  Missouri passed a law in 2018, which among other things, prohibited representing a product as “meat” if it is not derived from livestock or poultry.  As you can imagine, with the recent popularity of plant-based meat products, this law is controversial, and eventually led to a lawsuit.  However, U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. decided not issue a preliminary injunction that would stop the Missouri Department of Agriculture from carrying out the labeling law.  He reasoned that since companies like Tofurky, who brought the suit, label their products as plant-based or lab-grown, the law does not harm them.  In other words, since Tofurky and other companies are not violating the law, it doesn’t make sense to stop enforcement on their account. Tofurky, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the good Food Institute have appealed Judge Gaitan’s decision, asserting that Missouri’s law infringes upon their right to free speech.  This means that the Missouri law can be enforced at the moment, but the decision is not final, as more litigation is yet to come.  

Oregon goes for cage-free egg law.   In August, Oregon passed a new law that would require egg-laying chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, or guinea fowl to be kept in a “cage-free housing system.” This law will apply to all commercial farms with more than 3,000 laying hens.  A cage-free housing system must have both indoor and outdoor areas, allow the hens to roam unrestricted, and must have enrichments such as scratch areas, perches, nest boxes and dust bathing areas.  As of January 1, 2024, all eggs sold in the state of Oregon will have to follow these requirements for hens.  The law does allow hens to be confined in certain situations, like for veterinary purposes or when they are part of a state or county fair exhibition. 

City can ban backyard chickens, says court.   The Court of Appeals for Ohio’s Seventh District upheld the city of Columbiana’s ordinances, which ban keeping chickens in a residential district, finding that they were both applicable to the appellant and constitutional. In this case, the appellant was a landowner in Columbiana who lived in an area zoned residential and kept hens in a chicken coop on his property.  The appellant was eventually informed that keeping his hens was in violation of the city code.  A lawsuit resulted when the landowner would not remove his chickens, and the trial court found for the city. The landowner appealed the trial court’s decision, arguing that he did not violate the city ordinances as they were written, and that the city applied the ordinances in an arbitrary and unreasonable way because his chickens did not constitute a nuisance. Although keeping chickens is not explicitly outlawed in Columbiana, the Court of Appeals for Ohio’s Seventh District found that reading the city’s zoning ordinances all together, the “prohibition on agricultural uses within residential districts can be inferred.”  Furthermore, the court pointed out that the city’s code did not ban chickens in the whole city, but instead limited them to agricultural districts, and that the prohibition in residential areas was meant to ensure public health.  For these reasons, the court found that the ordinances were not arbitrarily and unreasonably applied to the appellant, and as a result, the ordinances are constitutional.  To read the decision in its entirety, click here. 

EPA proposes controversial Renewable Fuel Standard rule.   On October 15, EPA released a notice of proposed rulemaking, asking for more public comment on the proposed volumes of biofuels to be required under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program in 2020.  The RFS program “requires a certain volume of renewable fuel to replace the quantity of petroleum-based transportation fuel” and other fuels.  Renewable fuels include biofuels made from crops like corn, soybeans, and sugarcane.  In recent years, the demand for biofuels has dropped as the Trump administration waived required volumes for certain oil refiners.  The administration promised a fix to this in early October, but many agricultural and biofuels groups feel that EPA’s October 15 proposed rule told a different story. Many of these groups are upset by the proposed blending rules, claiming that way the EPA proposes calculate the biofuel volumes would cause the volumes to fall far below what the groups were originally promised by the administration. This ultimately means the demand for biofuels would be less.  On the other hand, the EPA claims that biofuels groups are misreading the rule, and that the calculation will in fact keep biofuel volumes at the level the administration originally promised. The EPA plans to hold a public hearing on October 30, followed by a comment period that ends November 29, 2019.  Hopefully the hearing and comments will help to sort out the disagreement. More information is available here, and a preliminary version of the rule is available here.

New H-2A labor certification rule is in effect.    The U.S. Department of Labor has finalized one of many proposed changes to the H-2A temporary agricultural labor rules.  A new rule addressing labor certification for H-2A became effective on October 21, 2019.  The new rule aims to modernize the labor market test for H-2A labor certification, which determines whether qualified American workers are available to fill temporary agricultural positions and if not, allows an employer to seek temporary migrant workers.   An employer may advertise their H-2A job opportunities on a new version of the Department’s website, SeasonalJobs.dol.gov, now mobile-friendly, centralized and linked to third-party job-search websites.  State Workforce Agencies will also promote awareness of H-2A jobs.  Employers will no longer have to advertise a job in a print newspaper of general circulation in the area of intended employment. For the final rule, visit this link.

And more rules:  National Organic Program rule proposals.  The USDA has also made two proposals regarding organic production rules.  First is a proposed rule to amend the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances for organic crops and handling.  The rule would allow blood meal made with sodium citrate to be used as a soil amendment, prohibit the use of natamycin in organic crops, and allow tamarind seed gum to be used as a non-organic ingredient in organic handling if an organic form is not commercially available.  That comment period closes on December 17, 2019.  Also up for consideration is USDA’s request to extend the National Organic Program’s information collection reporting and recordkeeping requirements, which are due to expire on January 31, 2020.  The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service specifically invites comments by December 16, 2019 on:  (1) whether the proposed collection of information is necessary for the proper performance of the functions of the agency, including whether the information will have practical utility; (2) the accuracy of the agency's estimate of the burden of the proposed collection of information including the validity of the methodology and assumptions used; (3) ways to enhance the quality, utility, and clarity of the information to be collected; and (4) ways to minimize the burden of the collection of information on those who are to respond, including the use of appropriate automated, electronic, mechanical, or other technological collection techniques or other forms of information technology.

Great Lakes restoration gets a boost from EPA.  On October 22, 2019, the EPA announced a new action plan under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).  The plan will be carried out by federal agencies and their partners through fiscal year 2024.  Past GLRI action plans have removed environmental impairments on the lakes and prevented one million pounds of phosphorus from finding its way into the lakes.  The plans are carried out by awarding federal grant money to state and local groups throughout the Great Lakes, who use the money to carry out lake and habitat restoration projects.  Overall, the new plan’s goals are to remove toxic substances from the lakes, improve and delist Areas of Concern in the lakes, control invasive species and prevent new invasive species from entering the lakes, reduce nutrients running off from agriculture and stormwater, protect and restore habitats, and to provide education about the Great Lakes ecosystem.  You can read EPA’s news release on the new plan here, and see the actual plan here. We plan to take a closer look at the plan and determine what it means for Ohio agriculture, so watch for future updates!

 

By: Evin Bachelor, Thursday, August 29th, 2019

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) says that it has found a number of inefficiencies in the H-2A temporary agricultural labor visa program, and the department has a solution: change the program’s rules.  The DOL has proposed a number of administrative rule changes that it believes will make the approval process move along quicker, relieve burdens on U.S. farms, and create a more level playing field with regards to pay.  Before we talk about the rule changes, let’s recap what the H-2A program is.

H-2A is a visa program for seasonal agricultural laborers from other countries.

Labor shortages have plagued farms across the United States for decades.  Congress first created a visa program for non-immigrant labor in the early 1950s, but it wasn’t until 1986 that Congress established the H-2A visa program for temporary agricultural workers.  Under this program, farmers may apply to employ H-2A workers on their farm on a temporary or seasonal basis for up to a year, but may apply to renew the worker’s visa for up to three total years.

In order to hire H-2A workers, an employer must certify in an application to the DOL that there are not enough qualified domestic workers willing and able to perform temporary and seasonal agricultural labor.  In order to prove that there is not enough domestic labor, the farmer must demonstrate an effort to advertise the available work in the local area.

Further, the farmer must demonstrate to the DOL that employing foreign workers will not negatively affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers.  In other words, a farmer can’t hire foreign labor because it’s cheaper.  A farmer is expected to pay the foreign workers the same as the farmer would pay domestic workers, based upon the higher of the DOL’s Adverse Effect Wage Rate, minimum wage, or prevailing wage.

What does the Department of Labor seek to change?

The DOL proposes to make several changes to the H-2A program’s administrative rules.  Some of these changes update the rules to reflect what is already happening, while some make slight changes to the program’s overall scope.

  • Mandate e-filing.  The DOL currently allows farmers to submit their applications online or in hard copy, but reports that 4/5 of applications are completed online.  A review by the DOL has found that online applications get completed more quickly, have fewer errors, and reduce costs relative to hard copy submissions.  Under the new rule, the DOL would require all applications to be completed online, unless the farmer has a disability or does not have internet access.
  • Allow e-signatures.  The DOL currently requires farmers to sign a hard copy of their applications and either scan the document into the application or mail it.  Under the new rule, the DOL would accept e-signatures as equal to handwritten signatures.
  • Subdivide the adverse effect wage rate based upon specific agricultural occupations.  In the previous section, we noted that the farmer must pay the foreign workers the same as he or she would pay domestic workers.  One way to determine that wage is to use the DOL’s Adverse Effect Wage Rate.  Currently, the DOL has one rate for a state or region based upon the combined numbers for field and livestock workers.  Under the new rule, the DOL would use Farm Labor Survey data to subdivide agricultural occupations in order to ensure that higher paying occupations, such as supervisors of farmworkers and construction laborers on farms, use an Adverse Effect Wage Rate that properly reflects the wages of those higher paying occupations, rather than one general rate for all agricultural workers.
  • Update the methodology for calculating prevailing wage standards.  Another way to calculate the minimum wages of H-2A laborers is to base their pay off of the prevailing wage.  The current method of calculating the prevailing wage, which has not been updated since 1981, requires in-person interviews of employers.  Under the new rule, the DOL would eliminate the in-person requirement and allow states to collect data using more modern methods.
  • Incorporate guidance letters regarding animal shearing, commercial beekeeping, custom combining, and reforestation occupations into formal rules.  When asked for an interpretation of its rules and policies, a federal agency may issue a guidance letter to the person seeking an interpretation.  These guidance letters are not necessarily binding, and have no general application beyond the person seeking the interpretation.  By incorporating the guidance into a formal rule, the interpretation holds the force of law.  The DOL identified these occupations as unique relative to other agricultural occupations, and created a special set of procedures to obtain H-2A laborers to work these types of jobs.
  • Expand the definition of “agriculture” to include reforestation and pine straw activities.  Currently, reforestation and pine straw occupations are only available for H-2B applications, which are for non-agricultural occupations.  Under the new rule, these activities would be eligible for the agricultural based visa.
  • Reduce the time an employer must allow a domestic worker to apply for a job to 30 days.  Currently, the DOL requires a farmer to hire all eligible, willing, and qualified U.S. workers who make themselves available to work until the half way point in the H2-A contract period.  This means that if a farmer has H-2A laborers working under a six-month contract, then the farmer must hire any eligible, willing, and qualified domestic worker during the first three months of the contract.  Under the new rule, the farmer would only have to leave such opportunity open to domestic workers for 30 days.
  • Allow an employer to stagger the entry of H-2A labor.  Sometimes a farmer does not need all of the H-2A labor to arrive at once, but rather needs some to start on one date and then others to start on a different date.  Currently, this would require the farmer to submit an application for each date on which the farmer needs H-2A labor.  Under the new rule, the farmer would be able to submit one application but stagger the start dates of his or her workers over the course of 120 days.  This 120-day clock begins on the day the first H-2A workers enter the U.S.

For more information about the proposed changes, visit the proposed rule’s entry on the Federal Register HERE.

The public may submit comments until September 24, 2019.

As part of the public rulemaking process, the DOL is seeking public input on the proposed rule changes.  Members of the public may submit written comments to the DOL until Tuesday, September 24, 2019.

You may submit a comment online (visit https://www.regulations.gov/) or by mail (send to Adele Gagliardi, Administrator, Office of Policy Development and Research, Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor, 200 Constitution Avenue NW, Room N-5641, Washington, DC 20210).  When mailing comments, be sure to include the rule’s Regulatory Information Number (RIN): 1205-AB89.

Posted In: Labor
Tags: labor law, H-2A, administrative rules
Comments: 0
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Monday, August 26th, 2019

When kids head back-to-school, it's time for farmers to do some homework and recall the rules that apply to youth working on farms during the school year.   Once school is in session, Ohio labor laws place restrictions on the times of day and number of hours that youth under the age of 18 can work on a farm.  The laws don’t apply to parents, grandparents, or legal guardians, however.  For other farm employers, be aware that the laws vary according to the age of the minor and some require written parental consent.  Here’s a quick refresher:

16 and 17 year olds

  • Cannot work before 7:00 a.m. on school days, with the exception that they can work starting at 6:00 a.m. if they were not working past 8:00 p.m. the night before.
  • Cannot work after 11:00 p.m. on a school night, which means a night when the minor has school the next day.
  • No daily or weekly limits on the number of hours the youth can work.

14 and 15 year olds

  • Cannot work during school hours while school is in session.
  • Cannot work before 7:00 a.m. or after 7:00 p.m., but can work until 9:00 p.m. from June 1 to September 1 or during any school holiday or break lasting more than 5 weekdays.
  • Cannot work more than 3 hours during a school day or more than 8 hours during a non-school day.
  • Cannot work more than 18 hours in a week while school is in session, unless the job is part of a work education program such as vocational training or work study.

12 and 13 year olds

  • The same time restrictions and daily and weekly hour limits for 14 and 15 year olds (above) apply to 12 and 13 year olds, but there is no exception to the 18 hour weekly limit for vocational training or work study programs.
  • Employer must obtain written parental consent for the youth to be working, unless the youth’s parent or legal guardian also works on the same farm.

Under 12 years old

  • Can only work on a farm where employees are exempt from the federal minimum wage, which includes a farms of an immediate family member or a “small farm” that used fewer than 500 “man days” of agricultural labor in any calendar quarter the preceding year.  A “man day” is a day during which an employee performs agricultural work for at least one hour.
  • Exception to the above:  local youths 10 and 11 may hand harvest short-season crops outside school hours for no more than 8 weeks between June 1 and October 15 if their employers have obtained special waivers from the U.S. Secretary of Labor.
  • The same daily time restrictions and daily and weekly hour limits for 14 and 15 year olds (above) apply to youth under 12 years old, but there is no exception to the 18 hour weekly limit for vocational training or work study programs.
  • Employer must obtain written parental consent for the youth to be working.

The other labor laws that typically apply to youth doing agricultural work on a farm continue to apply throughout the school year.  For example, employers must maintain records for youth employees, provide a written agreement of compensation and a statement of earnings on payday, and a 30 minute rest period if the youth works more than five consecutive hours.  An employer can’t assign any youth under the age of 16 with a “hazardous” job or task unless the youth is 14 or 15 and has a certificate of completion for tractor or machine operation.  Further information about these and other laws that apply to youth under 18 working on a farm is in our new Law Bulletin, Youth Labor on the Farm: Laws Farmers Need to Know, available here.

By: Evin Bachelor, Thursday, August 22nd, 2019

August turned out to be a very busy month for food law.  We’re again reading headlines about the definition of meat and debates over cage-free egg laws.  We’ve also come across some interesting criminal actions involving organic labeling fraud and undocumented workers at poultry processing plants.  And yet again we have a Roundup update, but fortunately for Bayer, the target of the latest lawsuits are Home Depot and Lowe’s.  So without further ado, here’s our latest gathering of agricultural law news you may want to know:

Tofurkey cries foul against state definitions of meat.  The maker of edible vegetarian products designed to replicate the taste and texture of meats is fighting back against state labeling and advertising laws that require products labeled as “meat” to be made of meat.  Tofurky filed a lawsuit in federal court in Arkansas to stop the state from enforcing such laws, which is similar to a lawsuit it filed in Missouri and yet another company filed in Mississippi.  Livestock advocacy groups succeeded in having 12 states pass laws restricting the ability of food producers to refer to their products as meats if those products contain no meat.  Livestock advocacy groups argue that the labeling practices are confusing and misleading to consumers, while companies like Tofurky argue that they have a constitutional right to describe their products with meat terminology.  On its website, Tofurky lists beer brats, jumbo hot dogs, “slow roasted chick’n,” “ham style roast,” and more.  None of the products contain meat.

Organic food fraud puts farmers in jail.  A federal judge sentenced a 60-year-old Missouri farmer to serve 10 years and 2 months in prison after being convicted of wire fraud, which is the federal crime of committing financial fraud through the use of a telecommunications wire across state lines.  This includes placing a phone call, sending an email, or advertising online in the furtherance of the fraudulent scheme.  Another three farmers were also sentenced to prison for terms ranging from 3 months to 2 years for their participation.  The fraud involved a decade-long scheme to mix traditional corn and soybeans with a small amount of organic grains and then label everything as certified organic.  The grains were mostly sold as animal feed to producers and companies selling organic meat.  Organic products generally are sold at a high premium, and the volume of goods in this scheme resulted in the farmers receiving millions of dollars from consumers that was fraudulently obtained.  The lengthy prison sentences reflect the farmers’ intentional misrepresentation and mislabeling.  In other words, it was not an accident.

Oregon joins California and Washington to make the west coast cage-free.  States continue to battle over whether eggs should come from cage-free hens or caged hens.  When we last discussed the topic HERE in May, the governor of the state of Washington had just signed his state’s cage-free requirement into law.  Iowa, the nation’s leading egg producing state, has gone the other way in trying to limit cage-free egg production.  Now, Oregon is set to ban the purchase or sale of eggs and egg products from caged hens starting in 2024.  However, Oregon’s law exempts eggs and egg products from caged hens if the sale occurs at a federally inspected plant under the Egg Products Inspection Act or if the caged hens were at a commercial farm with a flock of fewer than 3,000 hens.  You can read the text of the bill HERE.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids poultry processing plants.  Federal immigration officials have alleged that managers at five Mississippi poultry processing plants knowingly hired undocumented aliens who are not authorized to work in the United States.  Fines for individuals or companies proven to have actual knowledge that they hired undocumented workers can reach up to $3,000 per undocumented worker.  Individuals may also face prison time.  According to news reports, ICE arrested 680 possibly undocumented workers during its August 7th raids in Mississippi.  In their applications for the search warrants, the investigators alleged that the companies hired undocumented workers who were wearing GPS ankle monitors as they await deportation hearings, reported Social Security numbers of deceased persons, and used different names at different times.

Latest Roundup lawsuit targets retailers Home Depot and Lowe’s.  You’ve heard us talk before about the thousands of lawsuits against Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) based on the allegation that the glyphosate in products like Roundup has caused cancer.  If you’d like a refresher, you can review our last post HERE.  Now, instead of going after the manufacturer, a new plaintiff is going after retailers.  Plaintiff James Weeks filed two class action complaints in federal court in California against Home Depot and Lowe’s, alleging that the home improvement giants failed to adequately warn customers about the safety risks posed by using the popular weed killer.  Mr. Weeks argues that the labeling leaves the average consumer with the impression that the greatest risk of harm is eye irritation, when in fact the retailers know of the product’s potential carcinogenic properties.  As these complaints are class action complaints, Mr. Weeks seeks to claim representative status over all consumers who purchased Roundup products from these retailers, and thereby lead the case against the retailers.  It will be interesting to see whether the court certifies these cases as class actions, or if this strategy falls short for the plaintiff.  You can read the complaint against Home Depot HERE.

Food giants seek silence from U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission.  In 2015, the U.S. Commodity Futures Tradition Commission initiated a lawsuit against Mondelez International Inc. and Kraft Heinz Co. for allegedly manipulating the wheat futures market.  All parties recently agreed to an undisclosed settlement, and entered into a consent order with the court to close the matter.  The agreement apparently included a provision that all parties would refrain from publically commenting about the settlement.  However, the federal agency ended up commenting on the settlement by the end of the week in which the agreement was finalized.  Mondelez and Kraft Heinz believe that such statements violated the terms of the consent order, although the federal agency contests the allegation.  Nonetheless, the confidentiality restrictions make it difficult to know the full details of the settlement.  All we know for certain is that there was one.

Federal courts report that Chapter 12 family farm bankruptcies are on the rise.  The federal court system releases data every quarter on the number of bankruptcies filed each month in that quarter.  The latest numbers for April to June 2019 showed a slight increase in the number of Chapter 12 bankruptcies filed when compared to the same time period in 2018.  Nationwide, there were 164 new filings, compared to 135 in the second quarter of 2018.  The numbers show a gradual increase in the use of Chapter 12 bankruptcy since 2013, but the numbers are starting to tick up to levels not seen since the Great Recession.  Chapter 12 bankruptcy is a special form of bankruptcy that can only be used by family farmers and family fishermen whose total debts do not exceed a certain dollar limit.  The current dollar limit is $4.4 million, but there is legislation awaiting President Trump’s signature to increase the limit to $10 million.  In large part because of these restrictions, Chapter 12 is one of the least commonly used forms of bankruptcy. 

By: Evin Bachelor, Friday, May 24th, 2019

When you don’t want to move, you don’t want to move.  That’s the message being sent to Secretary Perdue and the leadership of the USDA by employees of the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS), who recently voted to unionize 138 to 4.

ERS produces research on agriculture and rural economies that is used by policymakers in determining where to prioritize federal money, personnel, and attention.  Many universities and agricultural organizations also utilize the data in their own research.  Economists and statisticians make up a large portion of ERS’s staff.

The vote comes after months of tension over the fate of ERS.  USDA leaders have been seriously discussing moving the headquarters of ERS closer to the farms and rural areas that it is charged with researching, and away from D.C.  Recently the USDA announced that locations in Indiana near Purdue University, in Kansas City, and in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Region have been selected as potential relocation sites.  However, many ERS staffers have been vocal about not wanting to move away from D.C., either for personal reasons or to protect the prestige of the office within the USDA.

Further, Secretary Perdue had announced plans last year to place the service directly under the USDA’s chief economist, which would put ERS more directly under the watch of administrators appointed by President Trump.  Some staffers have expressed concerns that such a move could increase the pressure to analyze data in a particular way, and reduce the service’s independence.

According to news interviews, as conversations among the higher level administrators became more serious, many ERS employees felt that they did not have much say in the matter.  This sense of helplessness triggered many employees to want to unionize, while some employees have already left in pursuit of other jobs.

The right of most federal employees to unionize is protected under federal law, but the preliminary vote was not the final stop in the process.  The vote to unionize had to be reviewed by the National Labor Relations Authority, which governs public-sector labor relations.  The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) has already begun to represent the roughly 200 workers at ERS.  AFGE represents approximately 700,000 employees of the federal government and of the District of Columbia, with just under half of those members paying dues.  AFGE is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, which is the nation’s largest federation of labor unions.

The formation of a union does not mean that ERS employees will be able to prevent the changes being proposed at the administrative level.  However, it increases the likelihood that ERS employees have a seat at the decision table as a united group.  This desire to have a united front and collectively bargain is one of the traditional purposes of forming a union.

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