Ag labor reform supported, but bill raises concerns

AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — When it comes to the Agriculture Guestworker Act, Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s proposed labor bill that’s been dubbed H-2C, Craig Regelbrugge has advice to growers: support the process and lobby for changes when it hits the House floor.

Regelbrugge, speaking at the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association Convention on labor issues Sept. 26, said at this early stage to fully embrace the plan would leave the industry without leverage to make needed changes.

But to take potshots at the bill before it’s released from subcommittee could doom the industry from seeing a viable option to the current H-2A program.

“You want to support the train leaving the station because if there’s no train, there’s no way to get to the destination,” he said. “Then we’ll try to improve it.”

The markup session on the act, scheduled for Oct. 4, was postponed by the Judiciary Committee, of which Goodlatte, R-Va., is chairman, and as of Oct. 5, a makeup session had not been scheduled.

Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, said in an e-mail the delay “is a concern.”

“We are all assessing which members expressed reservations about the bill and what are they most concerned about,” Guenther wrote.  

Regelbrugge, AmericanHort senior vice president of industry advocacy and research and co-chairman of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, said there are some concerns over the proposed act:

  • A cap of 500,000 participants;
  • An 18-month cap on visas for seasonal/temporary work;
  • Moving guestworker programs from the Labor Department to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and
  • A provision that calls for participants to return to their country of origin.

“We have expressed these concerns to the Judiciary Committee staff,” he said. “It has been said by both staff and Mr. Goodlatte that the bill they have is the best they can move through the committee because the Judiciary Committee is so polarized.”

A week later, the proposed legislation was removed from the markup calendar.

Regelbrugge called the cap on the program an “artificial constraint on potential future growth,” and although the current workforce is not included in that number (H-2A participation is hovering around 200,000), attrition from the labor pool and immigration law enforcement will require new participants to enroll.

The industry’s thoughts on moving the program from Labor to the USDA has changed in recent years, he said.

“That’s something we advocated for in the Senate debate in 2013, and we succeeded,” he said. “We just felt the USDA’s constituent is the farmer, and that it would be more friendly.”

Regelbrugge said it’s not a patently bad idea, but USDA has no history with program, no staff to manage it, no expanded IT department to handle the increased flow and documentation of information.

“People (companies) who have had to jump into H-2A are a little bit worried about waking up one day and finding out they’re in the soup with everybody and the program that’s been keeping everyone alive is sudddenly in chaos because the government failed to make a smooth transition,” Regelbrugge said.

The current workforce issue is now much more complicated, with workers who have deep ties to the country, including children who were born here and are citizens.

 
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