Ag labor program traverses Congress
Florida farmers are a step closer to a more readily available labor force and reduced costs and administrative hassles, thanks to the immigration reform bill recently passed by the U.S. Senate. But serious questions remain about whether the bipartisan package can pass the House. From an agricultural perspective, the most important element of the Senate bill is a new guest worker program that includes specific guest worker provisions for farm workers. "That was important because we wanted to replace the dysfunctional [H2A] program that exists now," said Mike Carlton, director of labor relations at Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, which played a major role in the national Agricultural Workforce Coalition (AWC) that negotiated a final agreement with United Farm Workers. Carlton said he believes the Senate bill strikes an effective balance between a mandatory eVerify provision that will be part of any legislation ultimately passed by Congress and the need for a guest worker program that ensures the availability of farm labor. "That was something the AWC spent a lot of time negotiating, along with UFW," he said. "It was a joint effort. It was difficult. And there was a lot of give on both sides."Janell Hendren, national affairs coordinator at Florida Farm Bureau, agreed with Carlton that given the complexity and political sensitivity of the lengthy negotiations, a good compromise was struck. The ag worker program created by the Senate bill effectively replaces the old and much maligned H2A program. The new program includes both contractual and at-will provisions for farm labor. The contract visa program will be preferable for many growers and workers, Carlton said, because it ensures the stability of labor availability and employment. The at-will visa program will be preferable to some growers and workers because it allows workers to move from operator to operator and farmers to bring workers in to meet specific short-term needs. The Senate program also includes new wage rates that are above minimum wage, but significantly below old "adverse effect wage rates" specified by U.S. Department of Labor in H2A. There are six categories of wage rates: $9.64 per hour for farm workers and laborers, $9.84 per hour for graders and sorters, $11.37 per hour for dairy and livestock, and $11.87 for equipment operators. Rates for first-line supervisors and animal breeders are yet to be finalized. There also are significant changes to the transportation cost provisions of H2A. Under the Senate plan, contract via workers must still be provided inbound transportation and return transportation must be paid by employers if they complete at least three-quarters of their contract. For at-will visa workers, however, there is no transportation cost requirement. That's because it was deemed unfair for a worker's initial employer to absorb transportation costs if he would likely be working for multiple employers during his stay. Despite the bill's positives, however, Carlton and other agricultural leaders have a lingering concern that the tighter border security required by the Senate bill, with additional fencing and border patrol agents, will further impact the ready availability of farm labor. "It already is, quite frankly," Carlton said. "The border is much tighter now than it has been in a long time. And we are seeing reports that we are at a net loss in terms of potential labor, because there are more folks leaving the country than entering. And that means we're seeing significant shortages in labor throughout the country. For example, this past season, California had significant shortages of farm labor." And a farm labor crisis persists in Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. FFVA also is concerned that the delicate balance between eVerify and a truly viable ag worker program could still tilt in the wrong direction. "The whole concept behind the negotiations involved in the Senate bill were to ensure that we have a stable labor supply [to counterbalance] mandatory eVerify," he said. "If we have mandatory eVerify and do not have a viable guest workers program, then the country is going to be in real trouble from an ag labor point of view." And both Carlton and Hendren remain concerned about prospects that the bill can pass the House with its ag labor provisions largely intact. "The House is going to pursue its own, completely different path [to a bill]," Hendren said. "I think that any strong comparisons, in a favorable light, between the Senate and House bills are probably counterproductive. While the measures might resemble each other, I think the key to getting something passed in the House is to focus on the differences, because the House has an attitude that will strongly balk at anything that is considered the Senate taking the lead on the issue." In addition, House Speaker John Boehner has said he will honor the so-called Hastert Rule and not even bring an immigration reform bill to the floor for a vote unless it has the support of a majority of Republicans. Carlton is guardedly optimistic that an acceptable bill can get through. "There has been a lot of rhetoric, as there always is, about the Senate bill," he said. "But I think there's no doubt that the vast majority of House members understand that agriculture has a serious problem from a labor perspective that needs to be solved."