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Agriculture Labor Reform

Where American workers are unwilling or unavailable, workers from other countries have provided crucial support to American agriculture.

Farmers and ranchers need a reliable, skilled workforce. Farm work is challenging, often seasonal and transitory, and with fewer and fewer Americans growing up on the farm, it’s increasingly difficult to find American workers attracted to these kinds of jobs. Farm labor can’t all be replaced by machines either. There are certain farm jobs, like tending livestock and pruning or picking fresh produce, that require a human touch. Where American workers are unwilling or unavailable, workers from other countries have provided crucial support to American agriculture.

Congress needs to pass responsible immigration reform that addresses agriculture’s current experienced workforce and creates a new flexible guest worker program. Instability in the agricultural workforce places domestic food production at risk--increasing immigration enforcement without also reforming our worker visa program could cost America $70 billion in agricultural production.

Ag Labor Reform Background

Farmers and ranchers have long experienced difficulty in obtaining workers who are willing and able to work on farms and in fields. Jobs in agriculture are physically demanding, conducted in all seasons and are often transitory. To most U.S. residents seeking employment, these conditions are not attractive. A number of studies document this fact, and farm worker representatives also have acknowledged this in congressional testimony. Yet, for many prospective workers from other countries, these jobs present real economic opportunities.

In times of labor shortages farmers have relied on these foreign workers, who are admitted under a government sponsored temporary worker program known as H-2A, and on workers who appear to have legal status to be working in the United States. The demand for foreign workers is heightened due to not only a lack of a domestic workforce, but also the reverse migration of workers from the U.S. to Mexico, historic levels of immigration enforcement and bipartisan congressional commitment to a credible work authorization system through mandatory E-Verify. Those factors, combined with an increasingly rigid and burdensome H- 2A program, demonstrate the need for a new approach.

Reforms to the immigration system can assure that American agriculture has a legal, stable supply of workers, both in the short- and long-term for all types of agriculture. This requires a legislative solution that deals with the current unauthorized and experienced agricultural workforce and ensures that future needs are met through a program that will admit a sufficient number of willing and able workers in a timely manner. Past legislative proposals (e.g. AgJOBS, HARVEST Act, BARN Act and other bills) have attempted to reform the H-2A program to ensure a future workforce in agriculture. However, it is apparent that those proposals are no longer viable to meet agriculture's needs.

Multiple H-2A regulatory changes and rigid program administration have made use of an already difficult program nearly impossible. A national survey conducted by the National Council of Agricultural Employers of H-2A employers under the current rules showed that administrative delays result in workers arriving on average 22 days after the date of need causing an economic loss of nearly $320 million for farms that hire H- 2A workers. Costly recruitment requirements result in less than 5 percent of those referred by the government working the entire contract period.

Agriculture needs a program that functions as efficiently as the current free market movement of migrant farm workers while providing the security of a contractual relationship in areas where there is little migration. Having lost confidence in the H-2A structure as a framework for future success, Farm Bureau is seeking the new approach outlined above to ensure a legal, reliable, long-term workforce for all sectors of the industry.

Solutions for Ag Labor Reform

Workforce Stability

Farm Bureau supports proposals that provide access to a legal and stable workforce for agriculture’s needs now and in the future. First, agriculture needs a new flexible visa program administered by USDA that provides flexibility for employers and workers by allowing contract and at-will employment options to address both seasonal and year-round needs. This ensures future stability and can be used to fill shortages when domestic workers are not available. Second, for short-term stability, the proposal must include an earned legal status for experienced, but unauthorized, agricultural workers.

New Worker Visa Program

Farm Bureau believes that long-term workforce stability will come through the creation of a new streamlined, flexible visa program that follows how the domestic market operates. This program would replace the cumbersome H-2A program. Our proposal would shift management of the program from the Labor Department to the Agriculture Department, putting it where agriculture’s needs are more likely to be understood. Farmers would be permitted to offer workers either contract or at-will employment. All workers would be allowed to continue with an employer for as long as the employer has a need – up to three years. This allows farmers who have year-round labor needs to use the program and avoid disrupting their essential business operations. This program recognizes real-life workforce challenges and provides the flexibility and stability that most domestic workers enjoy.

Adjustment of Status

Farm workers should earn legal status, by following strict requirements. These could include showing proof of steady employment in agriculture, paying taxes, passing a criminal background check and paying a fine. This plan also provides a probationary period requiring individuals to become right with the law.

The reality is that a majority of farm workers are in the U.S. illegally, largely because Congress has ignored the shortcomings of the existing agricultural worker program. It’s time to deal with reality. But farmers must be able to keep their experienced workers – their trustworthy, right-hand men and women who have worked with them for years and can get the work of the farm done. Our proposal offers a tough but fair solution for these workers and their employers. Enforcement is an important part of the solution, but not the whole solution.

Economic Impact of Immigration

Why is Labor Important to Farmers?

  • Agriculture needs anywhere from 1.5 -2 million hired workers.
  • Labor costs account for 48 percent of the variable production costs for fresh fruits and 35 percent of variable costs for fresh vegetables.
  • The current labor situation is most acute for delicate berries and easily bruised produce. Harvesting costs for strawberries, blackberries and cherries account for about 60% to 66% of total production costs, making labor the primary harvest expense. People are needed to judge which fruit are ready to be picked and which need to be left to ripen.
  • Many migrants who begin their careers as farm laborers move onto other sectors of the economy or less demanding positions after several years. This progression leads to farmers often being the first to bear the negative economic impacts of decreased border crossings and migrant labor shortages.
  • At least 50-70 percent of farm laborers in the country today are unauthorized. Few U.S. workers are willing to fill available farm labor jobs.

Challenges of the H-2A Program

  • 72 percent of growers reported that workers arrived on average of 22 days after the “date of need.”
  • The program provides less than 4 percent of the hired workers needed in agriculture.
  • Entering into the H-2A program has been found to increase the obstacles that farmers face in order to hire and maintain employees. Only 8 percent of employers report that they were audited before they participated in the H-2A program, but 35 percent report being audited since entering the program.
  • An NCAE survey found that 47 percent of employers were “not at all satisfied” or only “slightly satisfied” with the H-2A program.
  • Farmers and even professional H-2A agents are routinely forced to hire lawyers to help them get through the process successfully.

Labor Impacts on Imports

  • A PNAE study found that when comparing the two year periods between 1998-2000 and 2010-2012, the share of fresh produce consumed in America that was imported rose by 73.9 percent.
  • Without an adequate supply of labor American farmer are at a competitive disadvantage. Americans ate 6.6 billion more pounds of imported fresh fruits and vegetables in 2010-2012 than they ate from 1998-2000.
  • The farm labor shortage explains as much as $3.3 billion in missed GDP growth in 2012. It also accounts for $1.3 billion in farm income that wasn’t realized that year.
  • Had U.S. growers not faced labor challenges—and been able to maintain the share of fresh produce they provided to the domestic market from 1998-2000— America would have boasted more than 89,000 more jobs in 2012. American GDP would have grown by almost $12.4 billion in 2012 and produced almost $4.9 billion more in annual farm revenues.
  • Almost 75 percent of that $12.4 billion in GDP growth would have been due to increased economic activity in the non-farm parts of the economy that year.

Effects of Enforcement Only Immigration Reform

  • The impacts of an enforcement only approach to immigration would be detrimental to the agricultural industry. If agriculture were to lose access to all undocumented workers, agricultural output would fall by $30 to $60 billion.
  • The enforcement only option would increase food prices by 5-6 percent, with domestic fruit production off by 30-61 percent and vegetable production down 15-31percent. The livestock sector would also suffer lost production in the 13-27 percent range.
  • The ideal approach would be enforcement with an adjustment of status and a redesigned guest worker program. This approach would result in no increase in food prices. There would be minimal decreases in fruit, vegetable, grain, and livestock production.

AFBF Farm Labor Study: Gauging the Farm Sector’s Sensitivity to Immigration Reform via Changes in Labor Costs and Availability