Labor Update

America’s Food Supply Depends on Workers

Ensuring an adequate agricultural workforce continues to be one of the most pressing issues Florida growers face. Producers this season have seen an adequate but tight labor supply, and FFVA continues to devote significant effort to working on a viable solution.

A key reason growers have been able to hire enough employees to harvest the crops is that more than 8,000 workers were brought to Florida through the H-2A guest worker program. Without those H-2A employees the situation would have been dire, said FFVA Director of Labor Relations Mike Carlton.

Yet the H-2A program is fraught with problems. The red tape involved makes it expensive, time-consuming, and sometimes unreliable.

A bipartisan group of senators, including Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, recently wrote to the U.S. Department of Labor expressing concerns about the program. The senators said the program resulted in “numerous cases in which unnecessary administrative delays resulted in not having enough labor to perform needed work.

Others who signed the letter were Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Michael Enzi, R-Wyo.; Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; and Jim Risch, R-Idaho.

The H-2A program was authorized as part of the Immigration and Nationalization Act of 1952 to help fill agriculture labor shortages by allowing foreign workers to be hired on a temporary and/or seasonal basis. Producers have been using the program for years with widely varied degrees of success.

The senators said they also were concerned about a lack of uniformity in the application of regulations related to the program. Their constituents complain about applications “being delayed or denied due to minor discrepancies related to language or officers applying an unreasonable degree of scrutiny that results in appeals that are costly to taxpayers.”

The senators asked for the three federal agencies that administer the program to hold regional meetings with farmers to discuss problems and possible solutions. In addition to the Department of Labor, the H-2A program is administered by the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department.

Additional information and the full text of the letter are posted here.

Voluntary E-Verify program set to expire

The agriculture is watching what happens with the current voluntary E-Verify program, which expires at the end of September. E-Verify is an online program that allows employers to check on the legal status of newly hired workers. It works for some industries but is problematic for agriculture for a number of reasons. Federal legislation has been proposed requiring all employers to use E-Verify with no alternative that acknowledges the unique seasonal nature of the agricultural workforce.

Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, puts it this way: “Out of the 1.6 million people who perform farm work in the United States, as many as 1.2 million may be undocumented. While the agriculture industry has advocated for a practical solution to its labor crisis—to secure a legal work force—for more than 15 years, it still does not have a workable program to hire the labor farmers need. Mandatory E-Verify legislation — H.R. 2885 and S. 1196 — without a new and reasonable agricultural worker program, could devastate farms across the country,” Nassif said.

“With irrefutable evidence that Americans are unwilling to plant and harvest labor-intensive crops such as fruits and vegetables, farmers will not be able to find the labor they need, and Americans will be forced to rely on imported food,” Nassif told the U.S. Senate Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security last October. Read his statement here

A coalition of agricultural associations is meeting regularly to develop potential legislation to reform the H-2A program. “It needs to be ready in the event that Congress makes a move to push mandatory E-Verify rather than simply re-authorize the voluntary program,” Carlton said. “We need to watch that process closely to ensure we are ready if the re-authorization process suddenly becomes a means to slip mandatory E-Verify through,” Carlton said.

Several states also are considering mandatory E-Verify.

Carlton said mandatory E-Verify would harm agricultural operations by chasing away some of the most experienced and dependable workers. “Requiring agricultural employers to use E-Verify will deprive America’s farms and ranches of a majority of their skilled workforce and nearly the entire pool of people willing to fill farm jobs unless Congress provides a workable agricultural labor program at the same time,” he said.

Carlton advocates a three-part solution consisting of reforming H-2A, creating a market-based companion agricultural program that is flexible and realistic, and providing work authorization for the current workforce on which the industry depends.

In the meantime, workers are not sticking around to see what happens. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are conducting a record number of I-9 audits in which employers must document the legal status of all workers within three days of receiving an ICE notice of inspection.

report from the Pew Hispanic Center stated that the number of Mexicans who moved to the United States between 2005 and 2010 fell to less than half of the 3 million who arrived between 1995 and 2000. In addition, nearly 1.4 million Mexicans returned home from the United States during that time, twice the number who returned 10 years earlier.

The study said the standstill “appears to be the result of many factors, including the weakened U.S. job and housing construction markets, heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations, the growing dangers associated with illegal border crossings and the long-term decline in Mexico’s birth rates.”

Carlton says the time to get serious about providing a solution to the guest worker problem is long overdue. “This problem is real. It’s a serious threat to maintaining a sufficient domestic food supply. Congress should act to provide solutions not out of political expediency, but because it’s right and it’s necessary. We need reform for farmers and their workers, for the nation’s consumers and for the security of our food supply.”

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