Farm labor bill reax

Domestic workers pick Cosmic Crisp apples at Lyall Orchards, Grandview, Wash., Sept. 30. A new U.S. House bill addressing farm labor supply doesn’t do enough, some say.

The largest provider of foreign guestworkers for farms in the West plans to terminate a farmworker housing project because, it says, a new farm labor bill threatens to kill labor-intensive agriculture.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, H.R. 4916, introduced Oct. 30 by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., doesn’t do enough to reign in escalating labor and housing costs, says Dan Fazio, executive director of the farm labor association, Wafla, in Olympia.

“I don’t see labor-intensive agriculture surviving if this bill passes in present form,” Fazio said.

Therefore, he said, it makes no sense to continue with a $3 million state loan to build a 160-bed farmworker housing facility in Chelan, Wash.

Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers in Washington, D.C., also said the bill doesn’t reduce labor cost enough, that he’s concerned about housing costs but thinks the bill can be amended, if not in the House, in the Senate.

NCAE still has an appeal pending on its nearly year-old lawsuit challenging the U.S. Department of Labor’s methodology and increase of foreign guestworker minimum wages this year.

While about 250 agricultural groups and labor organizations signed a letter of support for the bill, Marsh said he’s not sure any of the ag groups are happy with it. He noted the letter indicated support to move the bill forward with hopes of amendments in areas of “significant concerns.”

Joel Anderson, executive director of Snake River Farmers Association in Heyburn, Idaho, said it’s “very encouraging” to see multiple sides work together on the bill but that labor and housing costs need more work.

“To the extent the bill brings the issue to a point where we can continue to negotiate a workable program, we support moving it forward in the House,” he said.

Anderson said the bill protects families of newly-legalized domestic workers from deportation.

Wafla will likely oppose the bill unless it is fixed, Fazio said.

The bill freezes the Adverse Effect Wage Rage (AEWR) minimum wage for H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers at 2019 levels through 2020.

But Fazio pointed out the bill is unlikely to pass before the end of the year so if it passed next year the freeze would only be good for the portion of the year left.

From 2021 through 2029, the bill would limit annual increases in the AEWR to 3.25% and decreases to 1.5%. However, if the resulting wage is less than 110% of the federal or state minimum wage the increase would be 4.25%. Marsh said that would be the case for Washington because of its high state minimum wage.

“Any increases are too much because there is no adverse effect on domestic workers,” Marsh said.

NCAE sued DOL over the AEWR increasing 6.3% nationwide in 2019. Marsh said it looks like, based on USDA surveys early in the year, that it will increase 7.5% in 2020. He said that’s unsustainable.

Anderson said he knows of several farmers forced out of business by the 2019 increase because they couldn’t afford to hire H-2A workers and couldn’t find domestic workers.

The bill requires the secretary of labor to determine if there’s an adverse effect after 2029 and if there is none to forgo any AEWR increase, Marsh said.

“But we shouldn’t have to wait 10 years to get there,” he said.

Fazio said continuing AEWR increases up to 4.25% are too high for growers to stay in business. He said Newhouse has done a “fanastic job” but that House Democrats appear unwilling to concede further on wages or housing.

The AEWR “is a joke,” Fazio said, because there are no legal domestic workers for it to protect.

“Microsoft doesn’t have an AEWR when it brings in H-1B foreign workers,” he said.

It’s “indefensible,” he said, not to allow employers to charge workers for housing.

Employers have spent millions of dollars on housing and workers can afford to pay one hour’s wage per day for housing, he said.

“If the goal is to protect U.S. workers, why not allow us to charge foreign workers for housing?” he asked.

H-2A rules require employers to provide housing for H-2A workers and any domestic workers they hire outside a 50- to 60-mile radius. So domestic workers who live within that radius have to unfairly pay commuting costs, he said.

While Wafla helped fill about 16,000 H-2A positions this year, mostly in Washington, Fazio said he would like to see a 100% domestic workforce but that the bill does not do enough to ensure an adequate future supply of domestic or foreign seasonal farmworkers.

That’s because there is no wage and housing cost relief for employers in the H-2A program and because the bill’s requirement for newly-legalized domestic workers to continue working 100 days in agriculture a year for four to eight years won’t be enough, he said.

“As soon as they are legalized, they will want to leave ag,” Fazio said. “It could spur more undocumented immigration because they will want to come to get blue cards.

“It’s a poor public policy choice that is more of a political statement than a real workable solution. It will be a mad rush to automate before we go out of business and the little guy who can’t afford robots will go first. Government programs tend to benefit large employers which leads to further consolidation of the industry and everyone knows it.”

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