Work Needed to Improve Labor Legislation for Agriculture

Work Needed to Improve Labor Legislation for Agriculture
USDA/ CC BY 2.0. USDA photo by Lance Cheung.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act (HR 4916) was recently introduced in Congress as a way of streamlining agricultural labor hiring processes and providing some stability for labor costs. 

“America’s farmers and ranchers desperately need Congress to address agriculture’s labor needs,” said Ron Gibson, President of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation. “Nothing would be more welcome than legislation that truly addresses the needs of both growers and workers, and we are working toward that goal. However, earlier draft versions of this bill raised significant questions and concerns that need to be addressed before we can fully support the bill.” 

Farmers and ranchers have been asking Congress to reform our ag labor system for well over two decades, and it may be unlikely that Congress re-visits this issue for many years once it finally passes a bill. This has placed great important on the need for Congress to make sure critical provisions are included in the bill. 

In reviewing the proposal, the American Farm Bureau found that HR 4916 appropriately provides a permanent solution for millions of farm workers by granting them legal status. But it came nowhere near to providing the same kind of certainty to agricultural growers who need access to a legal, stable workforce.  

In four critical areas, the bill (as presented) falls short:

  • Wages. Title II of HR 4916 does not permanently address the high structural costs of the H-2A program. While it limits wage increases over the next 10 years, the program today is already too costly for many farms. And after 10 years, the bill provides no guarantee whatsoever. If American farms – especially fruit and vegetable farms – are to remain in business, they must be able to compete with imports (which have been taking an increasing share of our market over the last 20 years). The American and Utah Farm Bureaus are seeking a much more equitable, market-based cost structure for the H-2A program.
  • Increased litigation risk. The bill grants H-2A workers a federal private right of action, even though H-2A workers currently possess administrative means of having employment claims addressed and resolved. Farm Bureau opposes this private right of action.
  • Visa caps. While HR 4916 opens the H-2A program for year-round agricultural work, it limits the number of visas to 20,000 per year – a fraction of the number needed. Farm Bureau opposes this visa cap. Though a productive and important segment of Utah’s economy, Utah’s ag labor needs are much smaller than other states. Despite this fact, Utah alone could command a significant portion of a potential 20,000 worker visas. If Utah farmers and ranchers have to compete nationwide for this limited number of ag workers, it could make getting access to H-2A workers even harder than it is now.
  • Implementation of E-Verify. Farm Bureau opposes mandatory E-Verify before full implementation of a usable guest worker program. In a recent meeting with lawmakers, a group of Utah farmers and ranchers representing a wide variety of ag sectors emphatically shared the difficulties that would come to Utah agriculture should a mandatory E-Verify program be mandated before an effective guest-worker program was in place. Title III would impose E-Verify within less than three and a half years, potentially threatening many producers in their ability to find legal workers.

“The bill does far too little to help them compete with foreign imports by perpetuating the burdensome costs structure in the H-2A program,” said Allison Crittenden, Congressional Relations Director for the American Farm Bureau Federation. “[The] limits on visas for year-round agriculture could be crippling when combined with the E-Verify provision.” 

Farm Bureau’s test of any proposal is simple, and is the same question many producers are asking: Will the legislation provide any grower, of any commodity, in any state or region, at any time of year the legal labor that grower needs in an affordable, efficient way?

“Local farms and ranches are often an important economic engine in small, rural communities in Utah and in the rest of America, so a fundamental question we are asking is whether this bill contributes to a level playing field or instead drives agricultural production out of the U.S.,” Gibson said.  “We recognize that no piece of legislation is perfect, and we look for ward to working with Congress to see how this will impact farmers and ranchers and how we can make this bill better.”

Utah agriculture desperately needs a solution that works for all farmers and ranchers and helps them hire the legal, skilled workers they need. The Utah Farm Bureau recognizes the effort that has gone into crafting this legislative proposal and looks forward to addressing the bill’s shortcomings, bringing it closer to a real solution to agriculture’s labor challenge.

 



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