Goodlatte seeks to overhaul agricultural guest worker program with H-2C
House of Representatives (HR) 4092, the Agricultural Guest Worker Act of 2017, or AG Act, was introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) with the goal of dismantling and overhauling the H-2A program to find a more workable solution for bringing in foreign workers to the U.S. ag industry.
On Oct. 25, the House Judiciary Committee approved HR 4092 on a 17-16 vote, and House Agriculture Committee Chairman K. Michael Conaway (R-Texas) commented, “It’s time for an ag worker program that both respects our nation’s immigration laws and keeps American agriculture competitive. As a former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Mr. Goodlatte understands the challenges facing farmers and ranchers. His bill cuts red tape and institutes a flexible program that accounts for the different labor needs of various producers – be it the ongoing needs of a dairy operation or the seasonal needs of specialty crop farmers.”
“While we understand that getting a bill out of committee is only the first step, and there is still much to do to ensure the needs of sheep producers are met, we are grateful many of our priorities were included in the AG Act,” said American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) President Mike Corn. “Provisions for a skilled multi-year-round work force, while securing our border, are the hallmarks of a solid guest worker program. We look forward to continuing to work with Chairman Goodlatte and his colleagues in the House and Senate to ensure the final legislation improves on the success of the H-2A program.”
“Although no other country in the world rivals America’s agriculture industry, our nation’s farmers face many obstacles in today’s global economy,” Goodlatte wrote in a Sept. 6 editorial. “One challenge is access to a stable and reliable workforce.”
“HR 4092 proposes to completely replace the current H-2A agricultural guest worker program,” says Kelli Griffith, Mountain Plains Agricultural Service executive director. “The new visa designation would be H-2C.”
Goodlatte further said the H-2A program is expensive, flawed and burdensome as a result of extensive red tape required for producers to obtain workers.
“The AG Act replaces the H-2A program with a more efficient and flexible guest worker program that is designed to meet the needs of a diverse agriculture industry,” Goodlatte said.
The bill, as introduced, expands eligibility for guest workers to producers in all aspects of production agriculture.
“Among others, dairy and meat processing employers would now have access to the H-2C program,” Griffith said.
The H-2C program offers a number of positive aspects, including contract and at-will designations.
“A ‘contract’ and ‘at-will’ designation, combined with longer employer certification periods for employers, are expected to create more flexibility and opportunity for both workers and employers,” Griffith comments. “Numerous provisions are also included to protect American workers and ag employers, as well as foreign workers.”
Additionally, Griffith noted that the program would be administered and enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, rather than the U.S. Department of Labor.
In addition, the AG Act will allow experienced, unauthorized ag workers in the U.S. to continue working in the country by joining the H-2C program, so they can legally participate in the ag workforce.
“The AG Act also provides farmers with much needed flexibility,” Goodlatte says. “It ensures that the marketplace, not Washington, drives the agriculture industry.”
Room for improvement
Despite positivity for modifications for an agriculture guest worker program, Griffith said, however, there are challenges inherent in Goodlatte’s bill.
“The proposed cap and mandatory e-verify is a challenge for agriculture, particularly when we combine that with more aggressive enforcement,” Griffith said, noting the ag industry has articulated their concerns on those aspects.
A cap for visas would likely not satisfy the current need for foreign ag workers, and when the additional industries allowed by the bill are included, Griffith said, “That cap to visas is likely not sufficient for the number of current H-2A visas and the growth that would occur.”
Additionally, Griffith noted, “Mandatory e-verify without a workable foreign guest worker program that can accommodate the labor demand would result in ag producers being unable to operate their business, and, as a result, the country would be left without a secure food supply.”
In the wake of impending changes, Griffith explained the current H-2A program continues to be essential for the agriculture industry and a growing number of employers.
“The number of employers and job positions approved each year increases annually,” Griffith said. “While the program has some challenges and room for improvement, it has also worked for many years as the only viable option for the agriculture industry for employees.”
“Rep. Goodlatte is a great supporter of the ag industry in general, and he continues to be helpful in the effort to create a workable guest worker program,” Griffith comments. “His advocacy and tireless efforts regarding this crucial labor supply are appreciated.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at email@example.com.