OMAHA (DTN) -- With the support of both farm organizations and the United Farm Workers union, a bipartisan group of House members introduced a new farm labor bill in Congress on Wednesday.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would create a program to legalize current agricultural workers who are in the U.S. illegally, as well as their spouses and minor children. The bill would also make several changes to the H-2A agricultural guest-worker program, which would include allowing year-round agricultural guest workers -- a major issue for dairy farmers and other livestock producers.
Along with changes in the workforce, the bill would establish mandatory E-Verify for all agricultural employers through a phased-in process.
Ag-labor bills have come up in nearly every session of Congress over the past two decades only to whither somewhere in the process. Agribusiness and farmworker groups this time spent several months at the negotiating table with lawmakers looking to reach a compromise that would generate large bipartisan backing. The resulting bill has 24 Democrats and 18 Republicans as co-sponsors, almost all of whom represent large agricultural districts across the country.
The bill was spearheaded by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who chairs the House Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee, and Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash. Lofgren called the bill, "a true compromise proposal." The bill provides stability for both farmers and works by providing legal status to farmers while modernizing the agricultural guest-worker program, H-2A, Lofgren said.
"The men and women who work America's farms feed the nation. But, farmworkers across the country are living and working with uncertainty and fear, contributing to the destabilization of farms across the nation," Lofgren said.
Newhouse noted labor is the No. 1 concern for farmers and ranchers. He said it's no mystery that the current H-2A program is broken and needs an overhaul.
"Our nation's agriculture industry is diverse and flourishing, but producers are in desperate need of a legal and reliable workforce," Newhouse said. "As a third-generation farmer, I understand the invaluable contributions made by farmworkers to American agriculture, and we must modernize our guest-worker program to work for farmers, ranchers and farmworkers in the 21st Century.
Nobody knows how many agricultural workers are undocumented, but the Pew Research Center has consistently listed agriculture as the industry with the highest share of undocumented workers. Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Coalition of Farm Cooperatives, told DTN there could be in excess of 1 million agricultural workers without proper documents. That's one reason both United Farm Workers and farm groups spent months working on a compromise.
"They want them to be properly documented and we do too because we do not want to run the risk of losing them," Conner said. "They are essential to our ability to produce food in this country. Without them, we would lose a substantial portion of our labor force."
Agricultural lobbies and UFW also are looking for changes in the law that will reduce immigration raids that are becoming a growing risk to both employers and farm workers. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been increasingly hitting agricultural and food-processing operations, including August raids at Mississippi poultry plants that led to more than 600 arrests. But ICE has also hit smaller operations all over the country, ranging from New York dairy farms, and a raid at a Nebraska greenhouse operation a year ago that netted more than 100 undocumented workers.
Leaders for both farm businesses and workers are looking for a solution from Congress.
The bill would give "blue cards" to agricultural workers who have worked at least 180 days on farms over the past two years. They would become eligible for five-year renewable visas that would require working at least 100 days each year in agriculture. Those workers would later on be given the option to earn permanent legal status but must have at least 14 years of work history in agriculture before they can apply.
"That's something we have been working on for many, many years so to see this come together is a big milestone," Conner said.
The bill would make several changes to the H-2A program that include giving farmer employers more options to stagger labor needs in the application process and create a single filing process with the multiple agencies involved in bringing in guest workers.
For dairy farmers and others who need full-time workers, the bill would dedicate 40,000 green cards per year for agricultural workers. The bill would also create a new program for temporary workers that can last up to three years. The program would have a cap that could be lifted if market conditions warrant it.
One sticking point both the agribusinesses and union were able to compromise on involved the adverse wage rate for guest workers. The way the current scale workers, some areas of the country can see agricultural wages increase as much as 25% in a year in the labor rate for guest workers.
"Obviously, there isn't any segment of our farm economy that can withstand those kind of labor-rate increases," Conner said. "There just is not enough money being made in agriculture to be able to do that."
The wage formula would remain in place, but it would set a wage freeze in place for one year. The wage increase for guest workers would be limited to at most 3.25% per year, unless the resulting wage is less than 110% of the federal or state minimum wage. Then the wage could go up an additional 1%.
"For farmers in many regions of the country, that's going to be a huge savings for the farmer, and it's going to enable them to make a go of it rather than somehow try to sustain huge wage-price inflation," Conner said.
Mike McCloskey, a dairy farmer and chairman of the immigration task force for the National Milk Producers Federation, said dairy farmers face a "unique labor crisis," but they also know how hard it can be to get an immigration reform bill through Congress. "But we simply cannot and will not stop working to find a solution," McCloskey said. "Dairy needs workers for our industry to sustain itself. It's that simple, and it's that dire."
The United Farm Workers and its foundation stated the groups "are enthusiastic about passing legislation that honors all farm workers who feed America by creating a way for undocumented farm workers to apply for legal status and a roadmap to earn citizenship in the future without compromising farm workers' existing wages and legal protections," said Arturo Rodriguez, President Emeritus of United Farmworkers & Spokesperson of UFW Foundation.
"Today is a milestone because this bill will finally bring stability to the agricultural industry," Rodriguez said.
Other groups issuing statements backing the bill include Western Growers, National Farmers Union, the North American Meat Institute and the National Turkey Federation.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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