fb - voice of agriculture
October 2003

New Concerns Highlight Need for Farm Labor Reform

Bob Stallman
American Farm Bureau
By Bob Stallman
President, American Farm Bureau

A lot has changed in a little over 50 years. In 1952, U.S. servicemen were fighting in Korea. Dwight Eisenhower was elected, for the first time ever using television ads as part of a presidential campaign. There were no McDonalds. Elvis Presley had not even recorded his first song.

It was also 1952 when the Immigration and Nationality Act was established in part to help U.S. farmers recruit temporary, foreign employees when they could not find workers locally. Today, section H-2a of that law, like a rusty 1952 Buick that has been kept out behind a barn, is outdated, clunky and in need of major repairs.

Today, more farmers are relying on hired workers but fewer legal workers are available. Vermont dairy farmers woke up one recent morning to find the Homeland Security Department had raided their farm and removed their workers. With the increasing focus on homeland security, we can expect more raids. We need a viable and workable H-2a program now more than ever.

A Broken System

Since its inception, H-2a has never been significantly reformed to meet changing times. The program, which has fundamental value at its core, is forcing U.S. farmers to look elsewhere for labor and take their chances with a mostly illegal workforce.

The first major problem is the H-2a program's minimum wage, which is basically an average of all farm wages in a state. Thus, the minimum wage for squash pickers in Jamestown, Ohio, is inflated by the wages of tractor mechanics who might live in Cleveland.

A second flaw is that to use the program, a farmer must prove, and the Labor Department has to agree, there is a labor shortage. DOL fails 40 percent of the time to agree or disagree with applications submitted two months in advance. This year, a tobacco farmer in Connecticut was left stranded on the day of the harvest, missing 80 of the 100 workers needed.

Another deficiency with the system is once in the program, farmers can almost bet they are going to be sued. Suspicion of this type of targeting is well grounded. Recently, North Carolina growers were sued for not paying for their workers' travel during the first work week. In Washington State, a sheep rancher was sued for not paying workers while they were sleeping.

Time for a Fix

Farm Bureau has long championed H-2a reform. For years, we were one of the only organizations fighting for an adequate legal workforce. Now, with the interest of a dozen congressional members and strong support within the industry, we are getting somewhere.

Recently, Farm Bureau threw its support behind H2a reform legislation by Sens. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) that streamlines H2a, moves toward a market-based wage, and creates a process for farm workers to earn an adjustment of status.

That's a good start. However, we need a market-based wage. The minimum wage for squash pickers in Jamestown, Ohio, should be based on squash pickers in Jamestown, Ohio.

We also need to limit excessive lawsuits, like the ones in North Carolina and Washington. There needs to be more flexibility in housing requirements. Farmers should not have to hire workers that walk on after the job starts, and we need to make sure that all of agriculture can use the program if they so choose.

The good news is there are several other bills in Congress that attempt to reform the program, all of which have components we support. Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) will soon be introducing legislation that helps iron out more of our concerns.

AFBF will continue working with Congress toward a strong, viable H-2a program, ensuring agriculture's voice is included. There's no sense in driving a rusty, old 1952 jalopy when, with a little work, we could be driving a vehicle engineered for today's highways, using today's technology.