A widely supported solution for ongoing agricultural labor woes – the Farm Workforce Modernization Act – was reintroduced in the House Wednesday as Congress again looks to advance immigration reform. The bipartisan bill, which passed in the House in 2019 by a vote of 260-165, makes meaningful reforms to the H-2A agricultural guestworker program and creates a first-of-its-kind, merit-based program specifically designed for the nation’s ag sector.
The bill was negotiated over several months with input from farmers, agricultural stakeholders, labor organizations and farmworker advocates. In December 2019, it became the first agriculture labor reform legislation to pass the House of Representatives since 1986 and garnered support of more than 300 agricultural organizations. Since its passage in the House, the bipartisan coalition of members has been working to strengthen support from agriculture groups and within the U.S. Senate.
“American agriculture is desperately in need of a legal, reliable workforce. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act is a solution – negotiated in good faith by agriculture groups, labor representatives and members on both sides of the aisle – that will do just that,” says Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., a lead sponsor of the bill. “As one of only a few farmers in Congress, I understand the invaluable contributions our producers and farmworkers make to our nation’s unparalleled agriculture industry. Bringing our agriculture labor program into the 21st century is absolutely critical as we work to recover from the impacts of the pandemic and ensure a stable food supply chain in the United States.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., the lead Democrat sponsor of the bill says many of the men and women who work on America’s farms live in a state of “uncertainty and fear, which has only been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.” She says the bill provides a legal status for farmworkers and updates and streamlines the H-2A temporary worker visa program while ensuring fair wages and working conditions for all workers.
Specifically, the bill establishes a program for ag workers to earn legal status through continued agricultural employment and contribution to the U.S. agricultural economy. Qualified applicants are provided 5-year renewable agriculture visas. Individuals can renew their 5-year visas by working at least 100 days in agriculture each year. Those who have ag experience but do not meet the criteria for eligibility are provided the option of applying for H-2A visas.
If an individual worked in agriculture in the U.S. for at least 10 years before enactment, they must work an additional four years in agriculture after enactment before they can apply. If an individual worked in agriculture in the U.S. for less than 10 years, they must work an additional eight years in agriculture before being eligible to apply for legal permanent resident status.
Further H-2A reforms
The bill also reforms the H-2A program to provide more flexibility for employers, while ensuring critical protections for workers. The bill focuses on modifications to make the program more responsive and user-friendly for employers and provides access to the program for industries with year-round labor needs. Many in the dairy, meat and processing sectors have not been able to utilize the H-2A workforce because of limitations on year-round workers.
The bill takes a two-pronged approach to meet year-round labor needs through increased access to green cards and offering temporary three-year visas. The bill dedicates an additional 40,000 green cards per year for agricultural workers. These visas can be used by employers to sponsor workers to fill unmet permanent agricultural labor needs. The bill also creates an option for H-2A workers to apply directly after completing 10 years of H-2A work in the United States.
In addition, the bill creates a new, capped program for employers seeking to bring in temporary workers to fill year-round needs. Although the program would be capped, the secretaries of agriculture and labor would be able to increase visa caps if market conditions warrant such increases. Visas would be made available for both dairy and non-dairy needs.
Rather than one wage determination for all agricultural labor, the bill sets wages more reflective of the primary occupation (e.g., crop workers, livestock workers, machine operators, graders, and sorters, etc). This will ensure that wage requirements better reflect the real-world wages paid to specific types of workers. To prevent large fluctuations in wage rates, the bill caps wage increases and decreases, thus providing more stability and predictability to employers.
The bill also would establish a mandatory, nationwide E-Verify system for all agricultural employment, serving as the last necessary piece to ensure a legal workforce for the sector. The system would only be made mandatory for the agricultural sector, with a structured phase-in and guaranteed due process for authorized workers who are incorrectly rejected by the system.
National Council of Farmer Cooperatives Chuck Conner says throughout the process of drafting the bill Lofgren and Newhouse met with a wide variety of stakeholders—including NCFC and other farm groups—to solicit input and build support. “That inclusivity helped the FWMA become the first agriculture immigration bill to pass the House in over 30 years, doing so with significant bipartisan support,” Conner says.
“Once the bill is, hopefully, approved by the House, we look forward to working with the Senate to ensure that any final legislation addresses concerns with the FWMA and ensures the future competitiveness of farmers and ranchers,” Conner says.
Jen Sorenson, National Pork Producers Council president, says NPPC looks forward to working with Congress to enact meaningful labor reform that both opens the H-2A program to year-round labor without a cap and provides legal status for agricultural workers already in the country. “Though changes to the current proposal will be necessary to meet those needs, we’re confident Congress will find a solution that works for all parties.”
“The U.S. pork industry is suffering from a serious labor shortage, negatively impacting farms and processing plants. 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 farmers. Without visa reform to support a sustainable workforce, production costs may increase, which could lead to higher food prices for consumers,” adds Sorenson.
With COVID adding greater uncertainty to the already volatile dairy industry, producers need access to a stable, legal workforce more now than ever, says National Milk Producers Federation Jim Mulhern.
“This bipartisan bill takes a significant step toward ultimately addressing through legislation the workforce crisis plaguing American agriculture. NMPF urges the House to swiftly pass this bipartisan measure to demonstrate to the Senate that bipartisan ag labor reform can and must be done,” Mulhern adds.
United Fresh Produce Association President and CEO Tom Stenzel says it has pushed for this reform for many years and looks forward to making it a reality. “There remains work to be done to address our industry’s labor challenges, but this bill is an integral first step towards achieving our ultimate goal,” he says.