Definition Of Full-Time Hours And A Path To Legal Workforce Dominate Society of American Florist Congressional Action Days

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The CapitolGrowers, suppliers, florists and garden retailers gathered March 11 and 12 to review issues important to the floriculture industry, then headed to Capitol Hill to meet with dozens of representatives and senators or their staffs on those issues as part of SAF’s Congressional Action Days.

SAF (The Society of American Florists) selected two issues to be the main talking points during congressional appointments: how to define what is a full-time job and finding a way to ensure a legal and reliable workforce for industry growers.

A Need To Refine How ACA Defines Employees

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a complex law, and how it defines employee status has created alarm for SAF and many others in the industry. Specifically, two ACA definitions are in question: What constitutes a full-time employee and how seasonal workers are defined.

Full-Time Status. Currently, ACA defines a full-time work week as 30 hours, a shorter time period than most employers use.

Here’s how it’s phrased in the ACA: ”With respect to any month, an employee who is employed on average at least 30 hours of service per week.”

SAF is concerned that the ACA requires employers subject to the statute’s “Shared Responsibility for Employers” provisions to make an affordable offer of coverage to their full-time employees and dependents or face potential penalties.The 30-hour threshold would bring many current part-time employees within this requirement.

Another aspect of the definition that raises concern is the “with respect to any month” phrasing in the law. Traditionally, employers calculate full- and part-time employment on an annual basis. But if it is calculated on a monthly basis for penalties and determining full-time status, that can cause a number of problems.

Determining status on a monthly basis rather than an annual one can lead to confusion about coverage when an employee meets that threshold for one or two months, but none of the others. Does the employer offer coverage for a short amount of time or for the full year? SAF members advocated for the more common definition of 40 hours to be the standard. At the time of the Congressional Action Days visits, SAF was lobbying for two bills to pass:

  • S. 1188: Forty Hours Is Full Time Act Of 2013 in the Senate
  • H.R. 2575: Save American Works Act of 2013 in the House

The House passed H.R. 2575 on April 3, 2014.

Seasonal Employees: SAF members asked their Representatives and Senators to introduce and pass legislation that provides a simple and more accurate calculation for determining seasonal works. They also asked for a clarification that seasonal employment is not full-time employment and to align how seasonality is defined across varying industries and climates.

Another concern SAF has is that seasonal employers believe there is a seasonal exception that removes seasonal workers from the calculation for determining business size and exempts seasonal workers from receiving an offer of coverage. The ACA’s seasonal exception applies only to determining business size, SAF points out, and can only be used by employers whose workforce exceeds 50 full-time equivalent for 120 days or less. And the full-time equivalent includes all hours of service, including seasonal and temporary workers.

SAF objects to both the complexity of how seasonal workers are calculated, especially for smaller employers, and to establishing 120 days as a benchmark for seasonal employment. The 120-day benchmark is not accurate for many businesses across many industries.

As of early April 2014, Congress has not yet taken up the seasonal worker issue.

Giving Foreign Workers A Legal Path To Work

Although the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill in the summer of 2013 (S. 744: Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013), the time allowed for the House to take up the bill is coming to an end. Political maneuvering makes a comprehensive bill unlikely to pass in the foreseeable future, although there is hope that Congress will address immigration reform issue by issue.

In light of this reality, SAF members advocated for Congress to sponsor bills on the issues that most affect the floriculture industry — securing a reliable and legal workforce for growers.

There were two policies the SAF team asked Congress to consider. The first policy was for a bill that creates at-will visas that allow foreign workers to move from grower to grower as crop demands change. The second, backup position was for a more limited visa, in case the first ran into political roadblocks. A contract visa would allow foreign workers to travel to a specified employer, then return to his native country once that contract expired.

The SAF team was quick to point out that this is not a path to citizenship for these workers, but it is a path to give growers a legal, reliable workforce. Speakers at Congressional Action Days claimed that as many as 70 percent of agriculture’s current 1.8 million workers are unauthorized, and many of those are trained, long-term and reliable employees.

The reason for the presence of these workers, SAF points out, is not because of low wages undercutting American’s opportunity to work. Most firms pay rates significantly higher than minimum wage, often with free housing thrown in. The jobs are physically demanding and conducted in all seasons, which makes them unattractive to American workers.

Another issue SAF members lobbied for was for Congress to understand the flaws of the E-Verify system. Employers want to have a quick way to confirm applicants are legal, since un-documented workers being removed later in the season causes significant disruptions. Currently, however, E-Verify is riddled with errors and delays.

Stats That Show The Industry’s Strength

  • Size: Total floriculture sales (including cut flowers, plants and related items) were $34.3 billion in 2012
  • Number Of Floriculture Farms: 26,236

Top 5 Bedding Plants

  1. Geraniums
  2. Impatiens
  3. Petunias
  4. Pansies/Violas
  5. Begonias

 Facts You Might Not Know About Floriculture

  • Tissue culture, first used on orchid plants in the 1950s, led to an entire biotechnology industry.
  • The U.S. Floral industry has taken a leading role in developing methods of non-chemical pest and disease control.
  • Advanced irrigation and fertilization systems first used by the floral industry revolutionized agriculture in arid climates.
Carol Miller is editor of Today's Garden Center. You can eMail her at clmiller@meistermedia.com.
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