Ag workforce bill reintroduced
U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) reintroduced the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, House Resolution (HR) 1537, March 3.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act creates a solution to one of America’s agriculture industry’s biggest problems – workforce stability. The bill will provide stability, predictability and fairness to the most important sector of the U.S.’s economy, according to Lofgren and Newhouse.
HR 1537 passed the House with strong bipartisan support in the 117th Congress. The bill’s goal is to provide a compromise solution making a meaningful reform to the H-2A agricultural guestworker program, while also creating a merit-based visa program specifically designed for the agriculture sector.
“The men and women working on America’s farms feed the nation,” said Lofgren during a press release. “However, many of them do so while living and working in a state of uncertainty and fear, which has only been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Stabilizing the workforce will protect the future of our farms and our food supply.”
She continued, “The Farm Workforce Modernization Act accomplishes this by providing a path to legal status for farm workers. It will update and streamline the H-2A temporary worker visa program while ensuring fair wages and working conditions for all workers.”
“I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both Houses of Congress to get this bipartisan legislation, which serves the best interests of our country, to the president’s desk,” she shared.
During a press conference, Newhouse said, “American agriculture is in dire need of a legal, reliable workforce. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act is a solution – negotiated in good faith by agriculture groups, labor representatives and Congressmembers on both sides.”
“As one of only a few farmers in Congress, I understand the invaluable contributions our producers and farmworkers make to our nation’s agriculture industry,” he explained.
“Bringing our agriculture labor program into the 21st century is absolutely critical as the country works to recover from the impacts of the pandemic and ensure a stable food supply chain in the U.S.,” Newhouse continued. “We must act now to provide certainty to farmers, ranchers and farm workers across the country.”
H-2A amendments and livestock
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act will amend the H-2A program, which will allow a capped number of visas for farmworkers all year-round.
National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) President Jen Sorenson explains, “Unfortunately, the current H-2A visa program is designed for seasonal agriculture, ignoring the needs of U.S. pork producers and other year-round livestock producers.”
“Without visa reform supporting a sustainable workforce, production costs can increase, which could lead to higher food prices for consumers,” stated a news release from Iowa Select Farms.
Lofgren added, “Stabilizing the workforce will protect the future of farms and the food supply.”
Considered a major win regarding H-2A, reform allows access to the program for the industry with year-round labor needs, such as the dairy and livestock sectors.
The bill limits the number of three-year visas to 20,000 per year and further divides these visas by allocating 50 percent to the dairy industry specifically. An amendment seeks to remove the caps on the H-2A visas to ensure all of the agriculture industry can utilize guest worker visas to meet employment needs.
The amendment also allows the year-round H-2A cap to decrease annually based on labor metrics or increase based on an emergency determination of a significant labor shortage.
Additionally, the bill provides the Secretary of Labor and Secretary of Agriculture authority to determine whether to establish a numerical cap after 10 years.
Reseasoning behind the bill
“In the first two-and-one-half months of 2021, illegal immigration has reached a crisis point,” Newhouse said. “In order to maintain the rule of law and keep criminals out of our country, Congress must continue working to enhance our border security.”
He added, “One way to enhance border security is the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which is the bipartisan, targeted labor solution the agriculture industry needs.”
“It’s not easy to find common ground, even when we share common goals,” Lofgren said. “We have to get this compromise bill over the finish line this time.”
She added, “This bill is a compromise bill and doesn’t have everything everyone wanted.”
The bill passed the House March 18, and is currently in the Senate. There is interest on both sides of the aisle to perfect the legislation and send it to the president’s desk for signature. Lofgren and Newhouse recognized their work doesn’t stop with the advancement in the House.
Inside the bill
The bill establishes a program for agricultural workers, including their spouses and minor children, in the U.S. to earn legal status through continued agricultural employment.
Specifically, it provides a process for farm workers to seek Certified Agricultural Worker (CAW) status, which is a temporary status for those who have worked at least 180 days in agriculture over the last two years.
Long-term agricultural workers wanting to stay can earn an immigration card by paying a $1,000 fine and engaging in additional agricultural work.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requires a worker to perform 575 hours or 100 days of labor in each year for five years to be eligible to renew a CAW visa. In the H-2A, a workday is defined as 5.75 hours of labor.
This amendment would extend the period required to work in agriculture to 800 hours or 140 days to ensure the primary occupation of the worker is agricultural labor. Additionally, the amendment provides flexibility for the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, to delay the implementation of e-verification by up to six months if the secretary determines more time is needed to process pending visa applications for agricultural labor.
Information on the Farm Workforce Modernization Act was gathered from porkbusiness.com.
Madi Slaymaker is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.