Bush Administration Proposes Agricultural Worker Reform

Here is the special report from the Society of American Florists (SAF) on the issue:  

Administration Proposes New H-2A Regulations–Important Effort Falls Short of Solving Farm Labor Crisis

As expected, the Bush Administration announced on Wednesday a wide-ranging proposal to administratively reform the H-2A program. In a joint media briefing by Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, and Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner, two separate sets of regulations have been proposed for public comment: the Department of Labor’s proposals to "modernize" the program and Homeland Security proposals on the hiring process itself.

In a statement on the proposed revisions, the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR), of which SAF is a long-time, active member, said, "We applaud the Administration for responding to the current labor crisis by throwing the industry a regulatory ‘lifeline’" but emphasized that some problems can only be remedied by changes to existing law. "We urge Congress to recognize the serious problems facing agriculture, as has the Administration, and to act now to pass a legislative solution, AgJOBS."

As most Week in Review readers know, the H-2A program is the temporary agricultural worker program for growers and producers in most agricultural industries. Those employers face an increasingly severe shortage of available domestic workers who are able, willing, and qualified to fill seasonal agricultural jobs. The proposed rules are extremely lengthy and complex. At first glance, the new rules are a mixed bag featuring some positive changes and others which deeply concern SAF.

The current H-2A program is unpopular with employers — only about two percent of agricultural workers come in under the H-2A program. Employers do not use the program because it is expensive, litigious and bureaucratic. In the face of increased enforcement and a decreasing labor force, the inability to secure sufficient workers means that crops are rotting in the field in many industries. Floriculture producers also are affected. One of the many problems with the current system is that the Department of Labor consistently fails to meet its own deadlines required by law, therefore farmers cannot depend on the program’s promise to provide the correct number of workers at the correct time.

The new regulations being proposed would provide some relief, but in other areas raise serious concerns. On one hand the new rules include changing the process employers must go through to apply for workers, making it less burdensome. However, the proposal also would allow the Labor Department to start random audits of H-2A employers, and increase the fines from $1,000 to $15,000 for employers who have displaced American workers by hiring foreign ones. Other fines would increase for violating regulations from $1,000 to $5,000. In addition, under the proposed changes, wages would be based on "skill levels" and the wage formulas are changed.

"This is not the solution," said New York farm owner Maureen Torrey a former chairman of United Fresh Produce, also an ACIR member. "It could be part of a short-term solution …. But we need real immigration reform to give us a workable guestworker program. We need action by Congress."

According to government estimates, only about 75,000 workers participate in the H-2A program. Of the nation’s 1.6 million farmworkers, some 70 percent are estimated to be without legal status. The proposed regulatory fix cannot address all of those workers.

SAF continues to support the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act (AgJOBS) legislation (S. 340 and H.R. 371), to make long term statutory reforms to the H-2A program agreed to by both labor and business. The bipartisan compromises reached in the AgJOBS legislation would reform the H-2A program, but also would allow for an earned legalization of existing workers which would bring workers out from the underground economy and provide time to transition into a workable H-2A guestworker program.

The labor situation has grown increasingly desperate as communities continue to pass, and enforce, a patchwork of state and local legislation across the country. For a decade, SAF has been working with ANLA and other agriculture organizations on immigration reform. AgJOBS has wide support by farmworker advocates as well as business groups. It continues to enjoy strong support in the House and Senate, including Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-28-CA) who are making renewed efforts to find a way to pass the legislation this year. The challenges are huge, however, given that it is an election year and that talk show hosts continue to portray any legislation allowing legalization as "amnesty," despite employers’ and mainstream media efforts to provide more factual information.

SAF appreciates the Administration’s efforts to improve the situation for H-2A users and prospective users. However the proposal is long, complex and needs careful review. SAF remains committed to a legislative overhaul, since H-2A reform alone cannot address the breadth and depth of the agricultural labor crisis. If Congress fails to act, employers will face a plethora of state and local laws, increased enforcement, and a new "No-Match" rule, which is expected shortly. SAF believes the nation’s employers and much of the nation’s farm economy are at risk.

Congressional Action Days Are Almost Here

SAF’s 28th Annual Congressional Action Days will take place on Feb. 25-26, 2008, in Washington, D.C. Congressman Jim Walsh (R -25-NY) has been added as the featured speaker for the Grassroots Breakfast from 7:30 to 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 26. Congressman Walsh is the Ranking Member of the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education Appropriations Subcommittee. As a long-time member of the House Appropriations Committee, he has been instrumental in supporting funding for the Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative. He is a co-sponsor of AgJOBS, as well.

Congressman Adam Putnam (R-12-FL) will be the featured speaker at the SAFPAC Gold Club Luncheon from noon to 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 26. Rep. Putnam is in his fourth term and is chairman of the Republican Conference. Rep. Putnam also serves on the Capital Markets, Insurance and Government Sponsored Enterprises Subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee. Congressman Putnam is a strong supporter both of AgJOBS and of the specialty crop programs of the New Farm Bill.

There is still time to register for Congressional Action Days. Get more information at www.safnow.org or contact Laura Weaver, CMP at 800-336-4743, lweaver@safnow.org.

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