By DAN WHEAT
Organizations representing agricultural employers and workers remain divided on a new guestworker visa program as part of immigration reform, a participant in the discussions says.
Because of that, senators will try to "split the baby" as best they can when completing a comprehensive immigration bill in mid-April, said the source who is involved from the ag-employer side but requested anonymity.
"Things are at a standstill. We can't bridge the divide. Whatever comes out of the Senate will be amended, but it's still early. People could come together," he said.
The Agriculture Workforce Coalition is negotiating with the United Farm Workers on the union's desire for the adverse effect wage rate and employer-paid housing and transportation to be part of any new guestworker program, Kristi Boswell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, has said. Those items are included in the current H-2A program.
ADD:The adverse effect wage rate is a minimum foreign worker wage set by the U.S. Department of Labor for a given area to ensure wages of similarly employed U.S. workers are not adversely affected. END ADD
AWC supports five-year terms of work authorization for undocumented agricultural workers in the U.S. and a new market-based foreign guestworker visa program that allows at-will and contract employment and year-round availability to help dairies and nurseries, Boswell has said.
"There are a few issues that there seems to be too much daylight between the sides, but AWC continues to work with champions to find middle ground," Boswell said March 26.
A reasonable wage and cap or limits on visas granted continue to be at issue, she said.
The Farm Bureau is a founding partner of AWC, which includes many agricultural industries. Several other participants to discussions from the employer and worker side did not return calls, including a spokeswoman for United Farm Workers of America.
The adverse effect wage rate and employer-paid housing and transportation are all benefits versus cost sticking points in the ag visa program and cost issues are unresolved in the Senate bill's larger visa program for nonagricultural jobs like hotel workers, landscapers and seafood processors that currently use the H-2B program, the source said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO disagree on wages, limits on numbers of visas granted and who qualifies for nonagricultural visas.
AWC favors legal status for illegal workers already living in the United States but wants it accompanied by a better guestworker program because it fears ag workers, when legalized, will move into other sectors, leaving a shortage of ag workers.
"AWC supports granting work authorization for experienced agricultural workers," Boswell said. "We are open to different arrangements that provide an incentive to stay in the agricultural industry and can have political viability."