STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The new White House chief of staff is working with the agriculture secretary to reduce the wages of some farm workers if possible. Farmers already know this - the federal government sets wages for guest workers from other countries. It's a system meant to hold wages up so that foreign workers are not underpaid and do not undercut the wages of U.S. residents. But the pandemic has prompted chief of staff Mark Meadows to see if that same system can bring wages down.
NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez broke this story. He's on the line. Franco, good morning.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: Franco, why would this be a good idea, to bring wages down now?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, the idea is to help the farmers. Right now the nation's agriculture laborers have been officially declared essential workers. There's 2 1/2 million, of which 10% are these temporary workers. They're here on what's called H-2A visas. People already know the pandemic has really disrupted supply chains, and the Trump administration wants to make sure that Americans have food to eat and U.S. grocery stores are stocked. Lee Wicker, someone I spoke to, he's of the North Carolina Growers Association - he told me U.S. farmers are really struggling.
LEE WICKER: When a farmer goes out of business, you know, he doesn't come back. Our food supply is a national security issue. And as bad as this COVID-19 crisis is, perhaps it can be a catalyst to start a conversation about our ag policy.
ORDOÑEZ: And he's really thankful that the administration, he says, understands that paying lower wages will help American farmers survive and compete.
INSKEEP: Although the wages have been propped up to protect a lot of vulnerable people, both migrants from other countries, who you wouldn't want to be taken advantage of, and U.S. residents, who you wouldn't want to be undercut - what are the wider implications of lowering the wages?
ORDOÑEZ: Right. You know, it's really interesting that this issue has really drawn some pushback from some strange bedfellows, including immigrant rights groups and immigration hard-liners who are usually aligned with Trump. They're both critical of the program but for very different reasons. Erik Nicholson of the United Farm Workers, for example, says the focus should be on protecting these essential and vulnerable workers.
ERIK NICHOLSON: So in the middle of a pandemic, rather than trying to figure out the cheap way to do things, we need to make sure we live up to the expectations society has of us as an industry to keep food flowing.
ORDOÑEZ: And groups on the right, they argue the administration is bending to the will of the agricultural lobby at a critical time of very - record-high unemployment.
MARK KRIKORIAN: So the point here is to cheapen the labor - that's the point. You know, H-2A program is a cheap labor program anyway. This is to make it a cheaper labor program.
ORDOÑEZ: That's Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. He acknowledges that farmers are in trouble. But he says that's even further reason for them to wean themselves off of foreign labor.
INSKEEP: So how would the administration do this given that there is a system to prop up wages?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, it's a little unclear how this change would happen and whether it'd go through the regulatory process or some kind of executive action. A Department of Agriculture official told me that Secretary Perdue is working with President Trump to, quote, "resolve longstanding challenges to the industry," including reforms to the H-2A program that have been exacerbated by the crisis. And Secretary Perdue has also complained that the required wages for these workers creates an almost $15 minimum wage for agriculture. But rates, as you pointed out, are actually different based on the federal government. They are change from state to state based on the prevailing wages of the area. So while it is almost about $15 in California, it's less in other agricultural states, around $12 in Florida and North Carolina.
INSKEEP: Original reporting from NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Thanks so much.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.