Bipartisan farm labor bill could ensure a stable workforce

By Beth Newhart

- Last updated on GMT

The bill was announced at the US Capitol Building on Wednesday. Pic: Idaho Dairymen's Association
The bill was announced at the US Capitol Building on Wednesday. Pic: Idaho Dairymen's Association

Related tags legislation Farm Bill Dairy farmers Dairy farming

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019 was introduced in the US House of Representatives this week, with the goal of expanding the H-2A foreign guestworker program and aiding with legalization of current workers.

Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash. co-sponsored the bill, formally released on Wednesday. The bipartisan support of the bill indicates that the unstable workforce crisis in agriculture is felt across the aisle, with employers unable to retain skilled laborers.

Three titles comprise the bill, if passed into law. First it will establish a program for agricultural workers in the US to ‘get right with the law’ and earn legal status through continued agricultural employment and contribution to the US agricultural economy.

This merit-based immigration reform will require applicants to pass a background check and prove at least 180 days of agricultural employment over the last two years. They will be awarded a five-year renewable agricultural work visa and an option for permanent resident status.

Tight wage restrictions

The second title of the bill will improve upon the existing H-2A visa program to work better for all of agriculture. Streamlining the processing of H-2A petitions to more quickly hire workers, modernizing and capping out-of-control wage growth in the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, and reducing costs for employers who use the program will all go into this.

This area of the bill is meant to set ‘real-world wages’ and protect against fluctuations, and says: “Rather than one wage determination for all farm labor, the bill adopts a proposal from the Trump Administration’s proposed H-2A rule to disaggregate wages for various agricultural occupations.

“To prevent wage fluctuations, the bill limits wage increases/decreases, thus providing more stability and predictability for employers.”

This would put a freeze on wage increases for 2020, and between 2021-2029, wages could not decrease by more than 1.5% or increase by more than 3.25%. This title would also prioritize preserving existing housing for farmworkers, incentivizing new housing and lowering housing costs.

“Building off of current law, this bill dedicates an additional 40,000 green cards per year for agricultural workers. These visas can be used by employers to sponsor workers to fill unmet permanent agricultural labor needs,”​ according to the bill.

The third title would establish a mandatory, nationwide E-Verify system for all agricultural employment with a structured phase-in and guaranteed due process for authorized workers who are incorrectly rejected by the system.

Skeptics and supporters in dairy

The bill has already elicited reactions from the dairy community, including the Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative. Brody Stapel, president of Edge, said, “Dairy farming has come to increasingly depend on foreign-born employees, who have proven to be invaluable.

“Unfortunately, the existing immigrant ag labor rules, which focus on seasonal work, are unworkable for year-round dairy farming. Farmers have been living in limbo for years while this issue has grown to crisis levels. We need a solution that provides a path for qualified employees to come to this country and a system for keeping those already here.”

Stapel noted that certain items of the bill ‘are not ideal,’ but that it may be the best opportunity for a labor solution for dairy farmers. He called it a ‘compromise proposal’ that has the ability to move workforce reform forward in agriculture.

The Idaho Dairymen's Association (IDA) expressed their support for the bill, calling it a critical issue to the economic health of rural America.

Rick Naerebout, CEO of IDA, said, "This bipartisan bill would provide a great deal of certainty and stability on one of the most challenging aspects of milk production in the state -- the availability of trained, experienced workers to care for the cows.”

Pete Wiersma, president of IDA, said, "This legislation is long overdue. I join other dairy producers in the state in thanking Congressman Mike Simpson for his role in making this happen. The bill is a good step forward for farmers, our families, our workers and their families and for the communities in rural Idaho.”

Wiersma noted that more than 35 organizations in Idaho have also voiced their support, agreeing that “the time has come to address the farm labor crisis and enhance national security and economic stability for everyone."

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