H-2A worker

An H-2A-visa foreign guestworker thins Gala apples. A bill that would modify the H-2A program has its supporters and critics in agriculture.

Sponsors of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act in the U.S. House this week say the bill will stabilize the agricultural workforce and provide certainty to farmers.

The bill offers a pathway to legal status for undocumented workers and allows year-round workers through the H-2A guestworker program.

Many farm groups support the bill, including those representing milk, pork, apple and potato producers, produce growers and farmer cooperatives.

But the bill has opponents as well, including Wafla, a farm labor association near Olympia, Wash.

“It’s a terrible bill. It takes an unworkable program and makes it more unworkable,” Dan Fazio, Wafla’s executive director, said.

The bill brings no relief to the H-2A program and forces farmers to use E-Verify to check the legal status of their employees, he said.

“H-2A wages are out of control, and they would go further out of control,” he said. The bill would freeze H-2A wages for a year and then cap annual increases at 3.25%.

The bill also creates a massive new liability for farmers, Fazio said. It gives farmworkers a new right to sue in federal court for H-2A violations. Currently the Department of Labor investigates any claims, he said.

It also creates a complicated, new foreign recruiter registration scheme and a huge liability for farmers in regard to class action lawsuits, he said.

The bill adds a lot of regulatory issues that agriculture doesn’t currently face, he said.

One claim is that the bill would provide relief for dairies, which need year-round workers, but he doesn’t see any relief. Most dairies don’t use the current H-2A program and he doubts the bill would change that, he said.

The bill adds additional requirements for those workers, such as free housing, and most dairies don’t have on-farm housing, he said.

H-2A is the only program to require employers to provide housing. Foreign workers in industries such as logging and forest management have to pay for their own housing, he said.

In addition, the bill only provides for 10,000 year-round visas for dairy workers, he said.

“That's not enough nationwide,” he said.

Wafla opposes the bill, as are most associations that have experience with the H-2A program, he said.

“My understanding is people support the bill as a work in progress” and are hoping to get substantial changes in the Senate, he said.

The bill would also exacerbate the labor shortage, he said.

Some undocumented workers won’t qualify for the new Certified Agricultural Worker designation, which requires them to have worked in agriculture for the last two years and to be clear of certain things like driving while intoxicated violations or unpaid taxes, he said.

The E-Verify requirement is also a problem because workers have to be legally documented. If they are undocumented or can’t get the Certified Agricultural Worker designation, farmers can’t hire them, he said.

“We’re going to lose a percentage of the workforce,” he said.

With the existing labor shortage, farmers aren’t going to be able to make up for that loss.

“If this bill becomes law it would be a real problem for agriculture,” he said.

“The bottom line is some people support the bill and some people oppose it, but everyone agrees it needs a substantial overhaul to be useful for agriculture,” he said.

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