U.S. puts off new wage rules

Challenges spur the Labor Department to wait 60 days on rules affecting seasonal foreign workers.

Staff WriterSeptember 24, 2011 

The U.S. Department of Labor has postponed implementing a significantly higher wage scale for seasonal foreign workers, a move that is being welcomed by industry and decried by worker advocacy groups.

The department said Friday that the new wage scale for unskilled workers with H-2B visas, which was scheduled to go into effect at the end of this month, will be delayed for 60 days while legal challenges filed by industry make their way through the courts. The delay will enable consolidation of the challenges and "allow the department to avoid the possibility of administering the H-2B program under potentially conflicting court orders," the department said.

The rules, which call for hourly wages to rise as much as 129 percent, have angered industries that depend on seasonal workers - including North Carolina's forestry, lodging and seafood processing industries.

The postponement "will keep my company open," said Sharon Carawan, whose family owns a seafood processing plant in Hyde County. Sixty of the 72 employees are foreign. The new rules would push wages up for those workers by 50 percent, from $7.43 an hour to $11.18.

Worker advocacy groups point out that $11.18 is more than $2 below the median and mean hourly wages in Hyde County.

The delay disappointed attorneys with the nonprofit N.C. Justice Center in Raleigh, which argues that the new wage scale is reasonable.

"This wage rate increase is designed to benefit U.S. workers," said Carol Brooke, a migrant attorney with the center. "The truth is, these jobs are required to be advertised to U.S. workers who don't take them because they are artificially low wages. ... Increasing those wage rates should increase the number of local workers in those areas who will be willing to take these jobs."

The Justice Center was part of a coalition of advocacy groups whose lawsuit led the Department of Labor to develop a new formula for calculating the minimum "prevailing" wage that employers must pay foreign workers. The coalition also won a subsequent court order directing the Labor Department to institute its new wage scale earlier than the department wanted.

Brooke said the coalition is "evaluating all our options" in the wake of the Labor Department's move.

david.ranii@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4877

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