H-2A workers

H-2A guestworkers from Mexico pick late blossoms off apple trees in Washington state. Legislation in the U.S. House would improve some aspects of the program but not others, a critic says.

More than 300 agricultural groups this week sent a letter to U.S. House leaders backing a farm labor bill before its first Judiciary Committee consideration, but a Washington state farm labor association has sharpened its opposition to the legislation.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, H.R. 4916, introduced Oct. 30 by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., was to be heard by the House Judiciary Committee on Nov. 20. It had the backing of 24 Democrats and 20 Republicans when introduced.

“As foreign producers take advantage of our labor shortage and gain market share, America will export not only our food production but also thousands of these farm-dependent jobs. Securing a reliable and skilled workforce is essential, not only for the agriculture industry but for the U.S. economy as a whole,” the agricultural groups wrote.

The bill provides renewable visas for agricultural workers in the country illegally, phases in mandatory E-Verify (electronic verification of employment eligibility), makes changes to the H-2A-visa agricultural foreign guestworker program and freezes the minimum wage of H-2A workers at 2019 levels throughout 2020.

Dan Fazio, executive director of the farm labor association Wafla, in Olympia, Wash., says the bill doesn’t do enough to rein in escalating labor and housing costs.

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

The letter signed by the more than 300 groups says a few provisions in the bill “raise significant concerns” that should be worked on as the bill moves forward in Congress.

“The House must pass legislation that preserves agriculture’s experienced workforce by allowing current farm workers to earn legal status. For future needs, legislation must include an agricultural worker visa program that provides access to a legal and reliable workforce moving forward,” their letter states.

Fazio wrote Wafla “strongly opposes” the bill because “it will not lead to a workable future flow” of workers for labor-intensive agriculture.

Wafla is the largest provider of H-2A-visa guestworkers in the West.

Fazio called the bill “mean-spirited and anti-farmer” in a Nov. 18 email to Wafla members. For example, he said, bill sponsors refuse to add a provision allowing farmers to charge foreign workers for housing.

“How is it fair that a farmer who petitions workers for H-2A visas must provide free housing while a landscape company bringing workers in to mow lawns in King County, Wash., can charge workers who are here with an H-2B visa?” he wrote.

Domestic workers who live within 30 or 40 miles of a farm are not eligible for free housing, creating animus in the workforce, he said.

The failure to create fair housing “demonstrates an intent to kill the H-2A legal worker program, leaving farmers without a future workforce,” Fazio wrote.

In most cases, the bill would also place previously illegal workers at the front of the line for hiring, ahead of workers doing the right thing by getting H-2A visas, he said.

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