Ag groups see labor reform window
By DAN WHEAT
Agricultural organizations are working harder to find common ground to resolve the nation's farm labor shortage. They're hoping for a window of opportunity next year regardless of which political party wins Tuesday's election.
Labor shortages and dependency on illegal workers for picking and packing have been growing issues in California, Washington and Oregon, particularly in hand-labor-intense tree fruit and vegetable crops. Many Washington tree fruit growers see it as their top threat.
"The industry will not be able to pick the crop without a solution. Acres in the ground and tonnage are increasing," said Dale Foreman, a member of the Washington Apple Commission, recent chairman of U.S. Apple Association and owner of 2,000-acre Foreman Fruit Co. in Wenatchee, Wash.
"Small guys will go out of business," he said. Many small growers have larger, older trees that pickers avoid because they prefer new orchards of smaller trees with less ladder work, he said.
Foreman, a life-long Republican, endorsed U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., for reelection this year to send a message to Republicans to get onboard the issue. Cantwell has pledged to work on bipartisan labor reform, he said.
Apple growers -- and growers of many other crops across the U.S. -- faced a shortage of pickers this harvest season estimated at 20 percent. Some turned to the complicated federal H-2A program that allows them to bring temporary guestworkers to the U.S. Foreman considered using H-2A but decided it was too expensive and unworkable.
There has been disagreement on solutions between ag groups and between ag groups, labor and farmworker advocacy groups. Politicians have used the lack of consensus to avoid action.
Potential movement toward agreement happened last month when the American Farm Bureau Federation board approved the framework of a plan that would grant limited ag-only work authorization for undocumented workers already in the U.S. and create a new agricultural visa program to allow more ag workers into the U.S.
The Farm Bureau effort is intended to bring relief to growers experiencing labor shortages by providing a legal and stable workforce.
But the Farm Bureau is a relative late-comer to the issue and needs to "work more closely with those who have worked the issue longer rather than doing its own thing," said Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, Calif., and treasurer of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR).
Yet an ACIR lobbyist, who requested anonymity, said the Farm Bureau proposal "is a positive development" that takes what Farm Bureau leaders see as the best of other plans as a basis for discussions.
"It's a work in progress," he said.
The Farm Bureau proposal lacks protection from deportation for families of workers and doesn't retain the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA) that covers pay and working conditions, Cunha said.
"They want some regulatory ideas I don't think you can do," he said. "Labor standards have to be the same for U.S. and alien workers. They want to have different guidelines for guestworkers that would be difficult to implement. Until we get rid of MSPA, migrants and seasonal workers all fall under it."
The Farm Bureau should just support HR2895, the guestworker bill sponsored by Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., and the modified AgJobs bill previously introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that addresses workers already in the U.S., Cunha said.
There are items in those bills -- including housing, transportation and provisions for residency -- that labor unions and farmworker advocacy groups will support, he said.
"If the Farm Bureau doesn't want them, we won't get a damn thing. If we don't have unions and advocacy groups with us, we won't get anything," Cunha said. "Here we are at the 11th hour and we have nothing because Farm Bureau has not supported what we've done."
Some insiders say incremental action on the ag labor shortage is more likely than comprehensive reform. Avoiding an outright grant of amnesty to illegal aliens already working on U.S. farms and not giving them easy access to citizenship appear to be the key elements of any compromise, they say.
For the Farm Bureau, the issue is "all about H-2A," Cunha said. A further concern is that Farm Bureau keeps changing its staff working on the issue.
"I don't want to see them drag this out. I'm asking them to be a team player," Cunha said. "They've been their own island."
The Farm Bureau proposal does not address residency or citizenship and it allows employers to provide housing and transportation but does not require it.
The Farm Bureau plan would allow agricultural workers in the U.S. illegally to obtain work authorization in renewable, five-year increments if they meet eligibility requirements. It would be only for agricultural work including harvest, packing and processing. Workers would need to apply for permanent residency status or return to their home country at the end of their work authorization.
The visa portion of the plan would give workers wanting to come to the U.S. a choice of up to 12-month contracts with employers or authorization to work at will for various registered employers for up to 11 months. The latter gives workers the ability to move around. Contracts give employers workforce certainty.
That proposal is too much like the failed federal H-2A foreign guestworker program and should not be intermingled with H-2A, Cunha said.
Kristi Boswell, the Farm Bureau's director of congressional relations in Washington, D.C., said some growers need the certainty of workers by contract. The Farm Bureau has taken ideas from H-2A and other proposals, tried to make them more employer-friendly but fully recognizes the support of commodity groups, ACIR, labor unions and farmworker advocacy groups is vital to getting anything passed, Boswell said.
Employers could still use the H-2A guestworker visa program but the new program remedies its failings, is a better option for growers and eventually H-2A would probably fade away, she said.
Farm Bureau has been involved in the issue as long as any other organization but hasn't been as vocal because it lacked uniformity within its own ranks, Boswell said. The proposal gives it uniformity as a starting point to negotiate with all other groups, she said.
Among those Farm Bureau has been working with are ACIR, USA Farmers, Western Growers, National Council of Agricultural Employers, U.S. Apple Association, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Western United Dairyman and National Milk Producers Federation, she said.
The Lungren bill and modified AgJobs bill failed because they don't address all needs of agriculture, Boswell said.
Lungren provides worker mobility but not workforce stability that contracts do and the Farm Bureau did not support it, she said.
The Farm Bureau proposal is a basis for renewed discussions among all groups on an equal footing "where no one plays follow the leader," she said. The goal, she said, is to be united behind a plan by the first of the year.
While the Farm Bureau proposal focuses on workers, protection for families from deportation will be contemplated during negotiations, Boswell said. "It's not our intent to split families," she said.
Farm Bureau opposes private right of action -- workers' right to sue over wages and work conditions -- while ACIR supports it, she said. Administrative remedies for workers are inherent in any government program, she said.
The program assumes E-verify (electronic verification of employment eligibility) as a given, she said.
"We have said we can support E-verify if we get a workable guestworker program in place," she said.
A request to interview Lungren was declined by one of his aides.
Farmworker advocacy groups want eligibility for residency after a five-year work permit and the Farm Bureau proposal doesn't include that, Cunha said.
A congressional aide who did not want to be identified said there are growing discussions toward congressional action next year because of grassroots work by growers, not just from California and Washington, but New York and Michigan.
"It's been looked upon as a Western problem," he said, "but there's been a shift with people all over the country having the same problems."
Time is too short and logistics are too difficult for action in the lame duck session, which will be dominated by fiscal issues, he said.
Boswell said there is full engagement by interest groups working the issue in Washington, D.C., to move beyond past differences and get something done because of the window for action in a new Congress.
"Chances are very good because now Farm Bureau has come together internally and is more engaged with other groups," she said.
The key is the right balance for agreement by all groups because politicians are all too eager to use any division as an excuse to avoid anti-immigration sentiment among voters, Cunha said.
"I'm optimistic we will be able to get some kind of worker permit fix next year," Foreman said. "I don't want to be wedded to any one package. I think after the new Congress is sworn in there will be several bills."
Mike Gempler, executive director of Washington Growers League in Yakima, which is a member of ACIR, said there is "some shared hope of a mild nature" for movement next year.
Ag groups are trying to come together but sometimes the Farm Bureau gets stuck because of the way it establishes policy, Gempler said.
Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association who formerly worked for the Washington Farm Bureau, said the bureau's proposal is exactly what is needed because it's the first to take in all regions of the country.
Republicans have not been willing to adjust status of undocumented workers and Democrats have been unwilling to grant a new visa program that works better than H-2A, Fazio said.
"The Obama administration said it wants to do something but has been counterproductive with its changes to H-2A," Fazio said. "The administration has not been a friend of immigration reform because the hard left position of the Democrats is to pay more to hire Americans."