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Foreign agriculture workers in Minnesota could lose overtime protections under proposed legislation

The bill’s author, state Sen. Mike Goggin, says the state’s overtime requirements have hurt Minnesota farm owners. 

State Sen. Mike Goggin has introduced legislation which seeks to eliminate the state law requiring employers to give ag workers who come to the U.S. through the H-2A visa program time-and-a-half overtime pay if they work more than 48 hours a week.
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi

Minnesota Sen. Mike Goggin thinks he might have discovered a way to offset a growing outcry from agricultural employers over losing workers to other states: He wants to strip foreign workers of overtime protections to make way for stretching their working hours.

If that happens, he said, the workers could make more money to support the families they left behind — without requiring employers to provide overtime pay.      

The Republican senator from Red Wing introduced legislation, SF 899, which seeks to eliminate the state law requiring employers to give ag workers who come to the U.S. through the H-2A visa program time-and-a-half overtime pay if they work more than 48 hours a week.

Currently, Goggin said, the state’s overtime requirements have a detrimental effect on rural Minnesota farm owners, many of whom can’t afford to pay for the overtime hours their employees need. Goggin says the phenomenon has led many guest workers to seek employment in other states that often don’t require companies to provide H-2A workers overtime pay. 

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“It just makes our small farmers not competitive,” Goggin said of the current state law. “We keep having policies like this that put our farmers at a significant disadvantage. The unintended consequence of these types of rules is that these farmers are going out of business.”

80 percent of workers from Latin America

Critics of the legislation, however, say it would take advantage of the guest workers in Minnesota, who are paid $12.75 per hour. (In addition to paying workers hourly wages, farm owners are required to cover workers’ travel expenses, housing and meals.)

“We have to be balanced and we have to consider the dignity of all people who are here in our state and who we want to be looked upon and respected,” said Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis.

Over the past several decades, during which rural America has faced a significant population loss, U.S. agricultural companies and small farm communities have turned to foreign workers for help. 

Although the U.S. government lists nearly 90 countries — including Germany, Morocco, Singapore, Ethiopia, Norway and Mexico — as eligible H-2A program participants, Champion said that more than 80 percent of such workers in Minnesota come from Mexico and Central America.

The overtime rule for agricultural foreign workers has been in place for decades and has worked pretty well for employers and employees, said Ken Peterson, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. “We just don’t think we should start exempting certain classes of people from it,” he said.

Peterson added that his department has been in communication with agricultural leaders and political representatives from Greater Minnesota about their concerns of losing farm workers to other states.

One way employers could attract and retain the H-2A guest workers, he said, is to pay them salaries — since the state doesn’t require employers to pay overtime if their employees are salaried.

Safeguards needed

Gary Wertish, president of the St. Paul-based Minnesota Farmers Union, which works to improve the economic welfare of agricultural and rural communities, said his organization works with families that hire seasonal H-2A workers.

He added that some of the farm families have had guest workers serving them for more than three decades. “They keep coming back because they’re happy and they’re treated well,” said Wertish.

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Wertish says some farmers do fear the overtime regulation might drive them out of business, but he is also quick to say there needs to be “some safeguards” to protect vulnerable guest workers from people who might want to take advantage of them, as in the case involving John Svihel of Foley, Minn.

In 2016, according to the St. Cloud Times, Svihel pleaded guilty to receiving nearly $200,000 in illegal kickbacks from a dozen of his H-2A guest workers between 2011 and 2013.

“As part of the plea agreement, Svihel has agreed to pay back the workers affected by the kickbacks,” the story states. “He also is required to pay $374,668 in unpaid overtime wages for H-2A workers and almost $200,000 in unpaid wages for J-1 visa workers.”

After passing the Senate Jobs and Economic Growth Finance and Policy Committee in February, Goggin’s bill has been referred to the Agriculture, Rural Development and Housing Finance Committee. “People are going to sit there and say I’m anti-immigrant and anti-migrant worker,” Goggin said. “That’s completely false. I will never [propose] legislation that’s going to put anybody in harm’s way or have anybody be put in a position that they would be taken advantage of.”