Dairymen are eagerly anticipating a House proposal to replace the H-2A visa program for temporary foreign agricultural workers with one that would include permanent workers.
The proposal by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., would create a new visa category, H-2C, and is expected to be introduced after Labor Day.
In remarks at a hearing on agricultural guestworkers in July, Goodlatte said the H-2A program is costly, time-consuming and flawed and he’s long supported replacing it with a more workable program.
Enumerating the flaws, he noted the lengthy, bureaucratic certification process for employers, forced artificially inflated wage rates, the requirement to provide free housing and transportation and exposure to abusive litigation — all of which his proposal addresses.
“Agricultural employers who participate in the H-2A program do so as a matter of last resort…,” he said.
For dairy farmers who need year-round labor, however, the current program just doesn’t apply.
“There are several challenges, the biggest of which is that it is designed to fill the workforce needs of farm employers who require temporary or seasonal work — and dairy farming is not seasonal,” said Chris Galen, senior vice president of communications for the National Milk Producers Federation.
“So it’s been difficult to try to retrofit the program to the employment environment on dairy farms. Hence the need to develop a new type of guestworker program, which is what we have been doing with Rep. Goodlatte,” he said.
NMPF has been working with Goodlatte during the past year to develop an immigration reform bill it can support, he said.
“Our focus has been on ensuring that the needs and concerns of dairy farmers are adequately addressed in the legislation he intends to offer,” he said.
The bill is not yet final and won’t be released until after Labor Day, so NMPF won’t comment on it until it has the opportunity to examine it closely, he said.
“That said, we look forward to supporting this legislation because it represents a major improvement over the status quo and it will help move the process forward,” he said.
The American Dairy Coalition has also been working with Goodlatte and is calling for united support for the proposal, circulating a letter of support and seeking signatures.
“We have waited 20 years for a realistic solution to our industry’s labor shortages … we must make this bill work,” said Laurie Fischer, the coalition’s CEO.
With important jobs on dairy operations left vacant, farmers are contemplating how they will sustain and grow their businesses. Some are considering downsizing, and others are wondering how long they can hang on, she said.
“The consequence of this will be reduced milk production, and the economies of the entire dairy infrastructure will be negatively impacted,” she said.
The dairy industry is currently excluded from applying for the H-2A visa due to its 365-day-a-year need for labor. The H-2C visa is the solution. Goodlatte’s bill provides the dairy industry a visa program that will ensure a viable workforce, she said.
In an email response to Capital Press, a Republican House Judiciary Committee aide verified that Goodlatte plans to introduce legislation soon to replace the H-2A program.