Congress tinkers with farm labor programs

Johnna Miller, Director of Media Development,
American Farm Bureau Federation

For 15 years farmers have been asking Congress to fix the system for bringing farm workers into this country. As AFBF’s Johnna Miller reports that hasn’t changed.

Miller: Congress seems poised to work on new legislation that would force businesses to use a computer system called E-Verify to check whether foreigners can legally work in this country. But American Farm Bureau Labor Specialist Paul Schlegel says that could be devastating to U.S. agriculture, because it ignores an important part of the problem.

Schlegel: Within agriculture we have a large number of workers who lack authorization to work and if we move to an E-Verify system, we simply don’t know where we’re going to get the workers to sustain the sector. Our Economics Department looked at the potential loss of the workers now on our sector . We could lose $5 to $9 billion in production in a year alone. Now those figures are several years old, so they’re even higher today. So the threat to agriculture is very, very real.

Miller: Schlegel says there are logistical problems with the system for farmers and ranchers.

Schlegel: We know farmers don’t have as much access to the internet as other corporations do. We also don’t work the way General Electric or General Motors works. If you’re a fruit and vegetable farmer you might need a whole bunch of workers for a short amount of time in a very quick period. We don’t have HR departments. We don’t have legal departments. So it affects us very, very differently.

Miller: Schlegel says if Congress does pursue this system that will cut agriculture’s workforce then it must also fix the system for hiring legal foreign workers, called H-2A.

Schlegel: We’ve been trying to get reforms to H-2A for 15 years now. There’s lots of litigation. It’s very expensive for farmers. It’s burdensome. We’ve had stories just this year of farmers who had dates of need by when they needed their workers that were not met by three or four weeks. So the program doesn’t work and it’s got to be fixed. We can’t just deal with one part of the problem. We have to deal with the fact that we don’t have access to a legal source of labor.

Miller: We have three extra actualities with AFBF Labor Specialist Paul Schlegel. In the first extra actuality he talks about necessary changes to the H-2A program, especially if the E-Verify system is mandated. The cut runs 23 seconds, in 3-2-1.

Schlegel: We must have an H-2A program that works.It’s got to be a broader program that works, because currently it doesn’t. It doesn’t cover dairy. We need to cover dairy. It doesn’t cover mushrooms. We need to cover mushrooms. There are parts of the sector that need to be covered so it has to be broadened. We also have to make sure that our existing labor force, some of which is not in proper work status, is accommodated. That’s going to be a very tough thing to do, but it’s one thing we have to make sure gets done correctly.

Miller: In the seconds extra actuality Schlegel explains why wages aren’t the issue. The cut runs 43 seconds, in 3-2-1.

Schlegel: Some people claim if we just paid a higher wage in the U.S. we wouldn’t have this problem.We would attract U.S. workers.We had a farmer just a couple of weeks ago, operates beehives in Colorado. They were offering $15 an hour; could not find anybody. It’s not a matter of wages. There are jobs here that for better or worse people don’t want to do. They’re tough, they’re demanding, they’re physically arduous. If you look at what they can get $7 or $8 or $10, the average now USDA says is $11 an hour, that’s a huge economic opportunity for people in Mexico and Central American states. So wages for us are not the issue. It’s the fact that there is an opportunity for people here they don’t have at home. And that’s going to draw them. There’s no question about that. What we want to make sure is that we can do that legally.

Miller: In the third extra actuality Schlegel describes the conflicting government rules about proper documentation. The cut runs 31 seconds, in 3-2-1.

Schlegel: They told people you cannot hire or employ someone who is not authorized to work in the U.S. Nobody disputes that, but they also said when somebody offers documents you as an employer cannot question those documents or you’re subject to a lawsuit either from the federal government, the Department of Justice, or from the worker himself. Now within agriculture we’ve had a lot of fraudulent documents on the market and that has made our sector very, very vulnerable to people working who don’t have authorizations. We are not document experts. Employers should not be expected to be document experts.

Miller: Newsline is updated Mondays and Thursdays by 5pm eastern time. Thank you for listening.

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