Program to keep workers on farms
Boswell: 'This is very clearly a very ag-employer-friendly proposal'
By DAN WHEAT
Agricultural workers illegally in the United States could obtain limited authorization for ag work only, under an American Farm Bureau Federation plan.
And a new agricultural visa program would be available for workers wanting to come to the U.S.
The American Farm Bureau Federation board unanimously approved the plan Oct. 3 and hopes its concepts garner broad agricultural approval and bipartisan support in Congress next year, said Kristi Boswell, the Farm Bureau's director of congressional relations in Washington, D.C.
The plan is intended to bring relief to growers experiencing labor shortages, she said.
"This proposal puts Farm Bureau and agriculture in a position it hasn't been in years -- farther down the road on finding consensus within agriculture on the labor issue, which is vitally important to a lot of ag industries," she said.
Boswell and Farm Bureau staff from 10 states with labor-intensive crops have been working on the proposal since March. The states are: Washington, California, Arizona, Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan.
The plan is a starting point for discussions and negotiations with commodity groups and others interested in the topic and toward a bill next year, she said.
"Either way the election turns out, we see next year as an opportunity for labor reform and we plan to be ready," she said. "The goal is to provide agriculture with a legal and stable workforce."
The Farm Bureau's membership "fully encompasses" regions and commodities the issue touches, Boswell said.
The Farm Bureau has been working on its proposal while keeping an open dialogue with a dozen or more coalitions and commodity groups, including the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, USA Farmers, Western Growers, the National Council of Agricultural Employers, the U.S. Apple Association, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Western United Dairyman and National Milk Producers Federation, Boswell said.
The Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform previously has favored the previous AgJOBS bills while the Farm Bureau did not. AgJOBS would have provided immigration status for farmworkers.
"We are working together to put the past behind us and find a solution to go forward," Boswell said.
"This is very clearly a very ag-employer-friendly proposal," she said. Labor advocates may object to certain elements but "we hope the flexibility we give workers will appease some of their concerns." Negotiations will be ongoing, she said.
The 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. Citizenship and permanent residency status is not addressed. Workers would need to apply for permanent status or return home at the end of their work authorization.
The visa program, for those wanting to come to the U.S., would give workers 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. At-will workers would be required to have a cumulative 30 days in their home country per year. Contract workers would be required to have a cumulative 30 days at home every three years.
Visas would be renewable as long as workers abided by their terms.
Contracts could be for 12 months or less. A worker could work for eight months for one employer under contract and then four months for another under contract. Contracts would give employers the certainty of having a work force.
Employers could hire workers under contract and at-will. Workers would have to choose one path or the other.
"The at-will relationship is intended to mimic the current migrant stream of workers, so workers could go from registered employer to registered employer as needs arise," Boswell said. They could not be unemployed for more than 30 consecutive days.
Wages would be the higher of the state or federal minimum wage. Employers could provide housing and transportation as incentives but they would not be government mandated.
Employers could still use the H-2A guestworker visa program but the new program remedies the failings of H-2A and is a better option for growers, she said. Over time H-2A likely would fade away, 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.