By DAN WHEAT
An agreement between agriculture and labor may have saved comprehensive immigration reform from unraveling, a key agriculture negotiator says.
"We were at impasse a couple of weeks ago. We went into smaller negotiations, just a couple of us with the union in a last ditch effort to negotiate a bill," said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers of Irvine, Calif.
Nassif and Monte Lake, attorney for the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, were the final two representing the Agricultural Workforce Coalition in negotiations with United Farm Workers of America. Others had included Bob Stallman, president and CEO of the American Farm Bureau Federation; Charles Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives; and Jerry Kozak, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, Nassif said.
"We were told by senators if we didn't come to agreement on ag, it would probably cause total collapse of immigration reform," Nassif told Capital Press.
Agreement was reached April 12 but there's still a long way to go, he said. The agreement should hold together in the Senate but "it is difficult to know in the House where a lot of people have serious doubts about blue cards (legal status for agricultural workers) and allowing them citizenship in five years," Nassif said.
A new ag visa program most likely wouldn't start until 2016 and eventually would phase out the H-2A program, he said.
UFW didn't get wages as high as it wants and the coalition didn't get unlimited or high caps for guestworker visas that it wanted, Nassif said.
The agreement allows 112,000 agricultural guestworker visas annually for five years with an overall cap of 337,000, Nassif said. AWC didn't want a cap until it is known how many of the 1.2 million undocumented agricultural workers in the U.S. will continue ag work when given legal status, he said.
"But we couldn't get that so we settled on the cap with language that the secretary of agriculture can increase the cap if there is a proven labor shortage," Nassif said.
UFW wanted to keep the adverse effect wage rate but AWC wanted to get away from it because employers can't afford it, he said.
The adverse effect wage rate is a minimum wage for foreign guestworkers 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.
Lesser minimums were agreed to that are closer to the national median wage rates for crop work, equipment work, crop graders and sorters, dairy and livestock, he said. Any ag wages not covered in the agreement will be determined by the secretary of agriculture, he said.
USDA, in consultation with the Department of Labor, will handle wages and caps while Labor and Homeland Security will handle E-verify and (electronic employment eligibility verification) and enforcement, he said.
UFW wanted employers to continue providing housing for foreign guestworkers and transportation to and from the country of origin. Ag employers wanted to save those costs.
"We wanted housing limited," Nassif said.
Housing will be provided but a housing allowance can be substituted if the governor of the applicable state certifies there is a housing shortage, he said.
"If more than 60 percent of your workforce are visa holders you have to pay the other workers the same amount and benefits, including housing. That's troublesome to us. We compromised at 60 percent," Nassif said.
Workers will get one employer-paid round trip either from and to the border or country of origin, which can be split between two employers if the employee switches jobs, he said.
Visas will be for three years and can be renewed after a worker returns home for 30 days. Visas will be by contract with a specified employer or at-will allowing the worker to move about among employers. A visa-holder can't be unemployed for more than 60 days or they will have to return home, Nassif said.
The agreement is close to a previously failed AgJOBS bill but is better than AgJOBS with the exception of the cap, Nassif said.