UPDATED: Farm labor bill clears committee

UPDATED: Farm labor bill clears committee

(UPDATED, Nov. 21) Bipartisan farmworker immigration legislation has cleared its first hurdle, passing out of the House Judiciary Committee with a vote of 18-12.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act now is set for consideration by the full House of Representatives, which supporters hope can happen before Christmas.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act is supported by hundreds of diverse groups, including Farmworker Justice and Western Growers.

“We would love to see it (considered by the House) before Christmas,” said Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Agricultural Employers Association. However, House impeachment hearings make that prospect uncertain, he said. Marsh said advocates of the legislation are already reaching out to members of the Senate.

“We’re getting some very enthusiastic responses with regard to legislation from both Democrats and Republicans,” he said. “We’re going to work as hard as we can to make sure that we can get it through the Senate and to the President’s desk,” he said. 

In a statement, Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, thanked bill authors Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif, and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and other legislators who are supporting the bill.

“Throughout the U.S., agriculture is experiencing a critical shortage of labor that jeopardizes our ability to continue producing an abundant, safe and affordable domestic food supply. Securing a reliable and skilled workforce is critical to the future viability of America’s family farms,” Nassif said in the statement. “This bill does exactly that.”

Nassif said the legislation protects existing farm workers and streamlines the H-2A guest worker program to assure a more predictable future flow of labor.

“This bipartisan bill, which has 29 Democratic and 23 Republican co-sponsors, has been carefully crafted through a series of difficult stakeholder-driven negotiations, and has garnered the widespread support of nearly 300 agricultural organizations across the country, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and farm worker unions,” Nassif said, noting that Western Growers is committed to work with lawmakers to address outstanding issues remaining in the bill and bring the legislation to a vote in House soon.

Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association, also praised lawmakers who advanced the legislation.  “The Farm Workforce Modernization Act is a testament to the tenacity of members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to bring much needed reform to the agriculture industry,” Stenzel said in a statement. “The sustainability of American agriculture is at stake if our labor situation is not addressed,”

Stenzel said the House needs to act quickly to pass the legislation.

“We believe a strong vote in the House will lead the way for the Senate to follow suit to finally address the labor crisis in American agriculture.”

Improvements needed

Agriculture interests will continue to try to improve the legislation as it advances, Marsh said, particularly in the way wages for the guest worker program are established. The NCAE earlier brought a lawsuit challenging the way adverse effect wage rates are set for the H-2A program by the Department of Labor; and that case is on appeal to the Washington D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, he said. The group also has filed a petition with the Department of Labor, requesting that the Secretary of Labor annually make a determination if the domestic workforce suffers any adverse effects because of the H-2A program.

“If there is no adverse effect, then there is no need for an adverse effect wage rate (increase),” he said.
In the first year after enactment, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would be frozen at the 2019 rate, Marsh said. After that, the legislation would put in place “guardrails” to limit increases or decreases in H-2A wage rate; wages couldn’t increase more than 3.25% or decrease more than 1.5% in any given year.

In 2029, the legislation calls for the U.S. Secretaries of Labor and Agriculture would make a determination if the H-2A program has an adverse effect on the domestic workforce, Marsh said.

Attention to wages is necessary for the U.S. to remain competitive with both Canada and Mexico, he said.

“Being (cost) competitive in being able to produce fruits and vegetables here in the United States is extremely important in making sure that U.S. farmers ranchers are competitive in the marketplace,” he said. “We’re going to continue to work together with our other agriculture groups and organizations to see if we can get a really, really good bill out of this.”

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