New bill promises improvements for farm workforce


Issue Date: November 6, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, at lectern, discusses the Farm Workforce Modernization Act during a Capitol Hill news conference also attended by congressional cosponsors and supporters of the measure.
Photo/Sara Neagu-Reed

With support from the California Farm Bureau Federation and many other agricultural groups around the state and nation, members of the U.S. House of Representatives have introduced a bill that seeks to ensure a stable and legal workforce for farms, ranches and other agricultural producers.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, and Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., officially unveiled the bipartisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019 on Capitol Hill last week. The bill's provisions would pave the way to legal status for immigrant agricultural employees already in the U.S., improve the H-2A visa program for nonimmigrant guestworkers and help assure border security.

"This comprehensive legislation contains key elements that address current and future workforce needs for agricultural employers and employees in California and throughout the nation," CFBF President Jamie Johansson said. "The reforms in the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019 will provide much-needed solutions for agricultural employers and employees."

The bill's provisions protecting those already living and working in the United States are particularly important to Johansson.

"We need to deal fairly with the existing agricultural workforce and their immediate families," he said. "The people who work on farms and ranches are valued members of rural communities. Their contributions to our communities and our food system should be recognized by allowing them a chance to gain legal status."

The bill would allow those working in agriculture in the U.S. to earn legal status as a Certified Agricultural Worker, so long as they can show at least 180 days of agricultural employment during the previous two years. Qualified applicants would receive five-year renewable visas; to renew, the visa holder must put in at least 100 days of agricultural work per year. The program would also cover the employee's spouse and minor children.

Those seeking to become legal permanent residents would pay a $1,000 fine and commit to working an additional four to eight years in agriculture, depending on the length of their previous agricultural employment.

The H-2A program changes would include a pilot program allowing employees to work for multiple employers on a single visa, rather than being restricted to one employer at a time as at present. For employers, filing, petitioning and recruiting processes would be streamlined. Wage rules would be reformed, and wages would be pegged to the specific work being done and would remain the same for the duration of the contract.

"Improvements to the H-2A program would make it much more flexible and valuable to California farm employers and employees," Johansson said.

For the first time, the bill would open the H-2A program to dairies, nurseries and other operations with year-round labor needs. That element drew praise from the National Milk Producers Federation.

Mike McCloskey, an Indiana dairy farmer who chairs the federation's Immigration Taskforce, said dairy farmers face "a unique labor crisis" because the jobs they offer are not seasonal or temporary.

"America's dairy farmers are eager to advance and improve this legislation as it moves through the Congress," McCloskey said. "Dairy needs workers for our industry to sustain itself. It's that simple, and it's that dire."

Once the program is up and running, the E-Verify employment-eligibility program would become mandatory for all agricultural employment, nationwide. The bill includes a structured phase-in for use of the system and provides due process for authorized employees incorrectly rejected by the system.

Casey Creamer, president of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, welcomed introduction of the bill.

"This legislation is critical to the sustainability of the fresh produce industry and our continued ability to grow fresh and healthy citrus products in California," Creamer said. "The existing system is out of date and does not meet the needs of employers or employees. We must put aside political differences and create a reasonable solution."

Tom Nassif, president and chief executive of Irvine-based Western Growers, said the Farm Workforce Modernization Act "has the resounding support of the agriculture community and contains principles that have historically received backing on both sides of the aisle."

Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale—one of 12 California representatives who signed on as original cosponsors of the bill—called it "a commonsense compromise that is fair to farmers, farmworkers and to U.S. citizens who appreciate the rule of law."

Noting that farmers in California and throughout the U.S. have long sought a "reliable and legally documented workforce," LaMalfa, a fourth-generation rice farmer, said the Farm Workforce Modernization Act "addresses these issues in a constructive, bipartisan manner that will provide much-needed certainty."

Another cosponsor, Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Salinas, said the bill had resulted from nine months of negotiations involving Democratic and Republican members of Congress, representatives of farmers and of farm employees; the United Farm Workers also supports the bill. Panetta called the legislation "a big step in the right direction for a bipartisan solution that can provide the needed certainty in our agriculture communities."

For a full summary of the bill, see the Farm Bureau website

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.