For 38 years, FFVA and other key agriculture organizations have offered employers an intensive seminar to ensure they are up to speed on all things labor: immigration policy, wage and hour laws, I-9 compliance, transportation regulations, workers compensation and much more.
This year’s annual Agricultural Labor Relations Forum featured a lineup of experts on a variety of topics, including immigration reform, I-9 audits, transportation regulations, workers’ compensation, labor-related legislation and the H-2A guest worker program.
The strong attendance shows how important the issue is for growers, said Mike Carlton, FFVA’s director of labor relations. “Employers are extremely concerned — and rightly so — about the increased pressures on their ability to hire an adequate workforce.”
The forum opened with an overview of how the political climate in Washington will affect the immigration debate. Kam Quarles, director of legislative affairs at McDermott, Will and Emery, gave the lay of the land on the issue of immigration reform and what the atmosphere would likely be after the election. He said several factors continue to have a major effect on agriculture labor policy and made several predictions as to possible outcomes.
Revisiting the topic following the election, Quarles said, “The current partisan split in Congress has kept immigration reform from moving forward, and the November election results maintained a status quo in regard to control of Congress and the presidency. However, the exit polling numbers showed that minority voters, in particular the rapidly-growing Latino segment, had overwhelmingly supported Democrats. The changing demographics of the overall electorate immediately brought calls by Republican leaders for a fundamental rethinking of how immigration reform is addressed in the coming Congress, otherwise their party may continue to suffer continued erosion of support.”
Can legislation move in a new Congress?
What is certain is that agriculture has its work cut out educating new officeholders on potential solutions to the issue. Support and bipartisan enthusiasm for AgJOBS has eroded over the past decade, Quarles said. In 2003, the bill had 62 co-sponsors, and 25 of those were Republican. By 2009, that had fallen to 22 co-sponsors, with only one Republican.
At the Labor Forum, Quarles emphasized that after the election, as many as 40 percent of House members could be freshmen or just beginning their second terms. With that, he said, would come a significant turnover in congressional staff.
In addition, Quarles said that a House Judiciary Committee with a chairman and members who are strong proponents of enforcement-only legislation would present a challenge.
The election determined that current committee Chairman Lamar Smith will be replaced by Congressman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia. Additionally, the outgoing Immigration Subcommittee Chairman, Elton Gallegly, will be replaced by GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who is known for his very conservative views of immigration and agriculture.
Looking forward, Quarles said, the question is: What kind of solution can agriculture propose so that it can have access to an adequate, legal workforce for planting and harvesting crops? And is it possible to move that forward in a new Congress?
Mandatory E-Verify and its devastating effects on agriculture could be the crisis that finally propels Congress to action, he predicted.
The perfect storm
David Stefany of the Tampa employment law firm Allen, Norton and Blue discussed the “perfect storm” coming in agriculture labor. Several factors are combining to lead to that situation, he said.
Foremost is the political climate in Washington. The Obama administration is very pro-employee. “We can all debate to what extent they are pro-business, but they are pro-employee,” he said.
That climate has led to expanded efforts by agencies including the Department of Labor, which has substantially increased its investigative capabilities. In particular, federal wage and hour auditors are concerned with employees in the low-wage spectrum, which includes agriculture. That would continue in a second Obama term, he said.
Agencies have developed a number of different enforcement strategies, Stefany said, citing the Department of Labor’s “unprecedented interpretations of regulations.”
The H-2A guest-worker program is a good example. The punitive interpretations of H-2A rules are a tactic from DOL in particular, Stefany asserted. Policymakers believe that “if you’re using the H-2A program, you’re discriminating against U.S. workers and that there are plenty of U.S. workers available if only you will pay them more.”
The state of the economy also figures into the current labor situation, he said. Employees are more combative and litigious, and plaintiffs’ attorneys are more aggressive in their demands. The agriculture workforce is aging and shrinking, minimum wage continues to rise, and the pool of immigrant labor coming to Florida and other states is getting smaller.
“There’s no better time on earth to be in compliance than right now, with all of these things happening,” Stefany said.
He offered some practical guidance for employers:
- – Know your business. Conduct a self-audit before the season so you know what an auditor would find.
- – Have a policy for initial contact by an agency. Designate a representative of your management team to talk to or meet with investigators.
- – Educate that representative about procedures to follow if your company is contacted by a government agency. Make sure your employees and supervisors know to refer agency inquiries to proper management representatives.
Find a way to get plugged in
State Rep. Ben Albritton of District 56 closed the forum by urging agriculture employers to get to know their elected officials. Building those relationships is key if growers want a successful outcome for agriculture during the legislative session, he said. “It’s going to take the folks in this room,” he said. “Find a way to get plugged in. Find a way to make that difference.”
The labor forum is presented each year by the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation. Besides FFVA, sponsors include Florida Farm Bureau, Indian River Citrus League, Gulf Citrus Growers Association, the Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association, the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Florida Citrus Packers and Florida Citrus Mutual.