A farm labor bill passed the U.S. House, 260 to 165, on Dec. 11, with proponents calling it a victory for farmers desiring legal, reliable workers and opponents saying it could be abused as an avenue to amnesty for more than farmworkers.
Sponsored by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., the bill provides renewable visas for agricultural workers in the country illegally, phases in mandatory E-Verify — electronic verification of employment eligibility — caps escalating minimum wages for H-2A-visa agricultural foreign guestworkers, makes the H2A program more efficient and allows year-round foreign workers for dairy and ag industries that need it.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, H.R. 5038, was the first agriculture labor reform to pass the House since 1986. About 300 agricultural groups supported the bill but with many hoping for some corrections in the Senate.
Concerns include more relief from the escalating Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) and allowing growers to charge workers for housing.
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, has said the bill fails to provide long-term stability in setting the minimum wage and is a path to citizenship for an “unknown number of illegal immigrants (and families) who do some work in agriculture.”
He also says the bill promotes fraudulent visa applications through extremely low document standards and the ability to withdraw a false application without prejudice.
The labor-intensive tree fruit industry in Washington state was largely supportive of the bill and many major companies worked with the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima to help craft the bill.
Last week, at the Washington State Tree Fruit Association annual meeting in Wenatchee, Jim Bair, president and CEO of U.S. Apple Association, said Newhouse was the only reason the bill made it so far and called him an “agricultural champion,” not just in Washington state but nationally.
“We have a super-heated political environment in Washington (D.C.) right now with impeachment, so it’s a miracle that a bipartisan ag labor bill is set to pass the House,” Bair said. “It’s only with the respect that Dan Newhouse enjoys in Washington, D.C.”
Noting that Fox News Commentator Tucker Carlson disparaged the bill, Bair said the bill requires workers who have worked in U.S. agriculture for 10 years or more to work four more years in agriculture in exchange for legal status and eight more years if they’ve worked in agriculture less than 10 years.
At a Washington Apple Commission meeting Wednesday in Wenatchee, Kate Tynan, senior vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, said the bill is “the best opportunity in a long time to get something past the finish line.” She said preliminary work is being done for the next phase in the Senate, likely to start in late January.
“We don’t see the political environment changing on this anytime soon, so that’s another reason to do it now,” Tynan said.
She said there was “only so much room on wages” in dealing with United Farm Workers of America.
One Apple Commission board member, West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers in Wenatchee, said he liked the way Tynan worked with UFW, which in the last three years has “developed a real collaborative spirit and mutual respect with growers” regarding wage and worker recruitment and training.
“If this passed it helps farmworkers in other states that aren’t paying the same wages that we are. UFW has developed a different tune in their approach to this, which has been extremely helpful,” Mathison said.
Western Growers, the California Farm Bureau Federation and the California Fresh Fruit Association were among groups issuing statements praising the House passage.