Agricultural employers, meeting last week in Las Vegas, were happy that a House bill proposing a new agricultural foreign guestworker program to replace the H-2A-visa program doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, says a manager of a leading foreign guestworker supplier.
Attendees at the annual conference of the National Council of Agricultural Employers don’t like a cap on foreign workers in HR 4092 and they don’t like the bill’s mandatory E-verify (electronic employment eligibility) without legal work permits for thousands of illegal agricultural workers living in the U.S., said Kerry Scott, program manager of masLabor in Lovingston, Va.
E-verify without legal authorization for illegals could remove as much as 70 percent of field workers, leaving growers with a huge labor vacuum, Scott told Capital Press following the NCAE meeting, which he attended.
“There are too many vulnerable employers and farmers scared of how that would play out,” he said. “So we’re happy to see it die if it dies.”
Labor-intensive agricultural employers were OK with the way House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., wrote the bill but didn’t like changes made to it before it passed out of that committee Oct. 25, said Scott who lives in Goodlatte’s district and considers him a friend.
The bill, which proposes to replace the H-2A-visa foreign guestworker program with a new H-2C program, is all but dead, not only because of agricultural opposition but because Goodlatte announced his retirement at the end of 2018, Scott said.
Dairies like the bill because it allowed a 36-month initial stay for guestworkers instead of 10 months allowed in H-2A. Dairies need workers year-round. Tree fruit growers can live with the 10-month limit. But tree fruit growers liked Goodlatte’s provisions making employer-provided transportation and worker housing voluntary instead of mandatory and reducing a required minimum wage.
Growers, however, didn’t like a 450,000-worker annual cap under H-2C because it most likely would be met immediately and an escalator provision would be slow, Scott said.
H-2A has no cap and probably will continue increasing rapidly because agricultural labor shortages will grow rapidly because of a thriving economy and tighter borders, he said.
The U.S. Department of Labor approved 200,049 H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers for U.S. farms in fiscal year 2017, up 20.7 percent from 165,741 in 2016.
The 2017 number would have swelled to more like 205,000 or 210,000 visas had there not been a late frost and hail in South Carolina and Georgia that damaged crops, Frank Gasperini Jr., NCAE executive vice president, has said.
He also has said usage of H-2A will continue to increase because domestic workers are getting older and moving into other jobs as the economy improves.
The rate of H-2A growth is greater among farm labor contractors than growers now because contractors can’t find domestic help, Scott said.
Employers who have been holding back on lining up H-2A workers for 2018 because of the possibility of it being replaced by H-2C are now dismissing it and moving ahead with H-2A, he said.
California has moved up to fifth from 15th in H-2A usage a few years ago and will grow a lot next year, he said.
The company, masLabor, provides 13,000 H-2A (agricultural) and H-2B (non-agricultural) guestworkers annually to 800 clients in 46 states.
“We’re getting a lot of calls now from California that we didn’t use to. Most of the people there will be big players who will want large numbers of workers,” he said.
A significant part of Washington and Oregon’s seasonal workforce for years was migrant workers from California and with that drying up Washington’s and Oregon’s shortages will grow even worse, he said.
Scott said masLabor also is getting more calls from Washington. It has supplied about 500 workers there annually compared to 7,134 in 2017 supplied by WAFLA, a Washington-based H-2A provider.