Georgia Ag commissioner: Don’t raise farmworker wages

The state government wants Congress to block a 2024 farmworker wage increase
Photo: Work is underway at Georgia pecan farm in 2023. Georgia is asking Congress to block a 2024 farmworker wage increase. (Hyosub Shin /



Photo: Work is underway at Georgia pecan farm in 2023. Georgia is asking Congress to block a 2024 farmworker wage increase. (Hyosub Shin /

Georgia’s Agriculture Commissioner has asked the state’s congressional delegation to freeze a wage hike for farmworkers he says will hurt both farmers and consumers.

The raise — the second pay increase in two years for guestworkers from Latin America — was put into effect Jan. 1 by the U.S. Department of Labor. The workers take temporary jobs on Georgia farms and farms around the country every year through the federal H-2A visa program. For 2024, the federal government raised the hourly wage for H-2A workers in Georgia by about a dollar, from $13.67 to $14.68.

In his letter to Georgia’s congressional delegation, Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper wrote that, for Georgia farms, the labor program is “quickly reaching a breaking point where the cost of using the program significantly outweighs its benefits.”

In addition, he warned that the latest wage hike would have devastating impacts not only on family farms – which account for the overwhelming majority of local agricultural operations – but also on “every household across our state.”

“Without immediate action to prevent these increases from going to effect, Georgia farmers will be forced to take drastic measures to stay afloat, including making production cuts — negatively impacting our state’s economy and increasing prices for consumers at the grocery store,” he wrote.

Georgia’s H-2A wage has grown by 22% since 2022. Last year’s hike in hourly wages was even larger than this year’s – from $11.99 in 2022 to $13.67 in 2023.

Farmworker advocates say that the wage hikes are needed. They point out that, because H-2A workers are not permitted to earn more than domestic workers, any wage bump that comes their way must also apply to U.S. farmworkers. The U.S. Department of Labor, which administers the H-2A program, bases each state’s H-2A wage on data collected by the federal government’s Farm Labor Survey, a poll of farm employers.

With this year’s increase to $14.68 an hour, Georgia is no longer among the lowest-paying H-2A states.

Alma Young works with H-2A workers in South Georgia through her role as coordinator with the United Farm Workers Foundation. She also comes from a farmworker family.

“What Georgia’s Department of Agriculture is asking for is for Congress to the cut the wages not just of H-2A workers, but of local U.S. farm workers as well. Georgia farm workers, like my parents, work for poverty wages as is,” she said in a statement. “If you pick the food that feeds America, you have earned the right to a raise.”

In his letter, Harper argued this is an inopportune time to raise farmers’ labor costs, noting that the agricultural industry is already reeling from significant increases in input costs. He also pointed out that 2023 brought significant crop losses tied to hail, hurricanes, and untimely freezes. He warned that the latest H-2A wage hike would add over $50 million to Georgia farmers’ labor expenses, and could represent “the final nail in the coffin for numerous family farms across our state.”

In a statement to the AJC, Harper said that “H-2A workers are largely insulated from the impact of inflation,” rendering a wage increase not necessary. Housing is included in H-2A workers’ salaries. Transportation costs from workers’ home countries — as well as between workers’ housing and farm — must also be covered by employers. However, some worker advocates say many workers aren’t actually reimbursed for some expenses as is mandated by program rules.

Despite the raise mandated for the guest workers last year, there was no decrease recorded in the number of H-2A workers recruited by Georgia employers. Last fiscal year, a high of 37,536 workers came to work in the state, which heavily depends on the H-2A program to fill its farm labor needs.

Georgia is reliably among the top two or three destinations for H-2A workers in the country.

Last year, Democratic Senator Jon Ossoff introduced a bill that sought to temporarily freeze the H-2A minimum wage to 2022 levels, citing a “sudden and massive increase in costs.” That move was unsuccessful and rankled farmworker advocates, but Harper said in his letter that he was grateful for it.

Another bill that stalled in the Senate last year was the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA), which would have frozen H-2A wages in exchange for a path to legalization for some undocumented immigrant farmworkers, among other concessions. At the time, powerful agricultural lobby groups said they were opposed to the legislation.

In a visit to New Hampshire earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said that an H-2A wage freeze of the kind Harper is advocating for is currently “going to be difficult to get from a political perspective.”

“American farmers and their associations did not support that law [the FWMA],” he said. “It didn’t have the 60 [Senate votes] because American agriculture didn’t stand up and speak loudly enough about the importance of getting that done. So, you missed a golden opportunity.”

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