New Congress could lead the way for ag worker, immigration reform
We expect to hear a lot about immigration in the first days and months of the Biden administration. Ag leaders say that there needs to be major reform to help with worker shortages and high labor costs. They made their voices heard through the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Ag workforce reform could see movement during the 117th Congress, as Democrats look to address a broad range of immigration issues. It is an issue the produce industry has been fighting for years, as it relies heavily on immigration labor.
According to Tom Stenzel, the CEO of United Fresh Produce Association, “It’s been a tireless battle trying to find a way to create that legal workforce. We particularly in the farmworker community, we are dependent on that immigrant workforce, but these are not people crossing the border today to come work in agriculture. Seventy-five percent of our undocumented workers have been in the country more than 15 years.”
He says that the pandemic shines new light on the value of immigrant labor on the farm and in processing.
“We have a number of immigrants who are leaders, supervisors, and foremen in our industry, not as many owners, although that’s increasing, but it has been very important that we have a newfound respect in this country for these essential farmworkers that are feeding the rest of us,” he states.
Combining ag and non-agricultural reforms could bring bipartisan support.
“President-elect Biden has been very clear, he wants to protect the Dreamers, to give them legal status, and I think if we can marry that with the agricultural reform bill as well that’s going to bring a more bipartisan nature to it,” Stenzel explains.
American Farm Bureau estimates agriculture needs nearly 2 million hired workers, the H-2A visa program fills only 4 percent of those jobs.
Congressional Relations Director Allison Crittenden says that expanding the program to allow year-round use would help fill the gap, as well as protecting farmers from unexpected costs.
“It’s imperative any legislation seeks to address these unpredictable increases in the adverse wage rate, that’s the wage rate H-2A employers are required to pay their employees... and that we have a wage methodology in future that enables farmers to be competitive in this growing challenging marketplace,” she states.
A bill that would establish certified ag workers under the H-2A program failed to pass Congress last year. Some Republicans have said they have warmed up to the idea of reform, after talking to farmers during the pandemic.
At its annual convention last week, the Farm Bureau listed H-2A reform as one of its top priorities for the year. Delegates would also like to see the program expanded to operations that do not currently qualify, like dairy farms.