After the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Labor announced last week that they will increase the H-2B non-agricultural guestworker program cap by 15,000 visas, Greenhouse Grower caught up with Craig Regelbrugge, AmericanHort Senior Vice President — Industry Advocacy & Research, to find out how that impacts us, and what it could mean for changes to H-2A, the current agricultural guestworker program.
While it’s encouraging that companies like landscapers that rely upon guestworkers through the H-2B program will get some relief with the additional 15,000 visas, there are strings attached, Regelbrugge says. One condition is that the companies that apply for help will need to take additional measures to prove their need, which could be open to interpretation.
“Companies that are using the program already have to go through pretty significant steps to prove the need,” Regelbrugge says. “But anybody who is petitioning for additional visas has to sign an attestation, under penalty of perjury, that it would cause irreparable harm to their business if they don’t get their workers. But what is irreparable harm? There is concern about that kind of requirement. It’s obvious, to us, that if you lose a single contract or you’re unable to serve a single customer due to labor shortage, that’s significant harm.”
The other condition that’s concerning is that this measure is currently outlined as a one-time deal, suggesting that this kind of relief isn’t going to be offered again.
“We’ve talked with landscape companies that are in triage mode because they didn’t get their workers, and the general sense has been that any relief is welcome, but it is awfully late in the season,” Regelbrugge says. “For landscapers who have had clients that are willing to defer projects into the fall, every day that’s lost is a lost opportunity.”
The influx of new H-2B visas may not directly impact growers’ current labor issues, but it does affect growers’ sales and the general economy and demand for plants, Regelbrugge says.
“On the growing end of things, Tom Demaline (of Willoway Nurseries) has been a constant reminding voice that the lack of landscape bandwidth made worse by the H-2B situation is constraining on plants getting into the ground. So from a grower standpoint, a lot of folks are sort of flat because the landscape industry is facing significant labor shortages and not able to step up to meet the demand that’s happening.”
So How Could This Affect H-2A?
The good news on the H-2A side, which provides guestworkers for agricultural purposes like work at greenhouse operations, is that there is currently no statutory cap in the program. However, after all the work that’s been done in at least a decade of different iterations of legislation for reform, Regelbrugge says a new bill soon to be unveiled (as early as this week) by the House Judiciary Committee would call for transitioning H-2A to a new program that features a cap.
“I think we’re seeing a growing consensus [in the industry] toward rethinking this notion of replacing H-2A because the growing community is saying, wait a minute, the worst of all worlds is to get a cap, and we’re seeing that now with H-2B,” Regelbrugge says. “Even if it’s a high cap, we can’t really know what the demand is going to be as we transition away from a situation where at least half the workforce is unauthorized, into a much more enforced, new world order. So I think a lot of folks are coming full circle. They’re saying we need to see H-2A improve as much as we can improve it, but we don’t want to see a cap.”
While many growers have avoided using the H-2A program for years (84% of the Top 100 Growers don’t use H-2A currently, according to Greenhouse Grower’s 2017 Top 100 Growers Survey), many are seeing no other way and starting to make arrangements to try it out, even on a small scale, Regelbrugge says. This was confirmed in results from Greenhouse Grower’s 2017 Spring Crops Survey, in which many growers said they plan to investigate using H-2A.
“I think we’re going to continue to see rapid growth, not only in our industry but also in the fruit and vegetable sectors,” Regelbrugge says. “Everyone’s situation is distinct, depending on where their business is located, and what the nature of the local labor market is. So we’d love to see a reform program and a solution for the current workforce but until then, H-2A is the only safety net.”
What’s the Ideal Situation for a Reformed Guestworker Program?
Speaking thoughtfully from his own experience and opinion, Regelbrugge says he thinks the best solution would be a three-legged stool approach that includes an uncapped H-2A as the ultimate safety net, a smaller pilot program that would offer more flexibility for workers to apply for and move among different agricultural employers with need for workers, and legal resolution status and authorization to work in agriculture for the current workforce.
The challenges the industry is facing with labor shortages and the need for improvement of the current guestworker programs will be central themes of AmericanHort’s Impact Washington event, September 12-13 in Washington, DC, Regelbrugge says.
“It’s abundantly clear, given the state of play on this thing, that the labor and workforce issue will be very much front and center at the conference,” he says. We’ll have other issues to cover, and folks will be going up to the Hill with a couple other things on their to-do list, but the labor and workforce issue will be very much front and center.”
The other issues on that list include informing lawmakers about the industry’s need for research dollars provided by the Farm Bill and the Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative, and tax reform.