farmworkers wearing COVID masks
Farm workers wearing medical face masks harvesting zucchini. Photo by: By Iakov Filimonov / Shutterstock

By Kevin Hecteman, Assistant Editor, Ag Alert

Reprinted with Permission from California Farm Bureau Federation

A bipartisan bill seeking to secure a domestic agricultural workforce and make the H-2A visa program more user-friendly has been reintroduced in Congress.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act was reintroduced last week by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., who sponsored the original bill in 2019. The House of Representatives approved the legislation in late 2019, but it was not taken up by the Senate.

California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson said he was pleased to see the bill reintroduced, noting that the organization was an early supporter of the original FWMA.

“Reform of federal immigration law continues to be a top priority for the California Farm Bureau, and this bill would create meaningful changes that would ease chronic employee shortages and recognize the value of farm work,” Johansson said.

The bill, he noted, has taken on new importance in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Long before the pandemic, we recognized the people who work on California farms and ranches as essential to reliable supplies of healthy food and farm products. The pandemic has only underscored the importance of assuring the people who work on farms and ranches can do so with the security of legal immigration status,” Johansson said.

Sara Neagu-Reed, California Farm Bureau associate director of federal policy, called the bill a “historic, bipartisan piece of legislation that finally gives the farming community in California—both employers and employees—the immigration solutions they’ve been seeking for over 30 years.”

Under the bill, employees who have worked at least 180 days in agriculture during the past two years could seek temporary Certified Agricultural Worker status, which could be renewed indefinitely with continued agricultural employment of at least 100 days per year. Applicants, along with their spouses and minor children, would have to pass criminal and national-security background checks.

Those interested in seeking green cards would need to pay a $1,000 fine and keep working in agriculture. Employees with 10 or more years of service time would need to work in agriculture four more years; those with fewer than 10 years would need to stay in agricultural work for eight more years.

The bill also addresses the H-2A visa program, under which nonimmigrant agricultural employees come to the United States for fixed periods of employment.

The FWMA seeks to consolidate the filing process via an electronic platform, through which all agencies involved in the process could carry out their duties, and allow employers to file one petition for staggered, seasonal labor needs. H-2A employees approved under the program would receive three-year visas. Recruiting of potential domestic employees—required before seeking H-2A employees—would move from newspaper ads to online job sites.

A Portable Agricultural Worker pilot program would allow as many as 10,000 people to work for multiple registered employers, who could hire people with portable status without having to file a petition.

For the first time since the creation of the H-2A program, the bill addresses the needs of year-round agricultural operations, such as dairies, by allowing for as many as 20,000 H-2A visas per year for three years for year-round employers. After three years, the cap could be adjusted, based on demand.

The FWMA would also reform H-2A wage rates, by disaggregating wages for various occupations such as crop workers, livestock employees and machinery operators. The bill would freeze wages for a year and cap fluctuations for most of the country at 3.25% for the next nine years.

Housing for agricultural employees coming to the U.S. on H-2A visas would be addressed through clauses protecting existing housing and encouraging new housing construction through U.S. Department of Agriculture rural housing programs.

The bill also phases in mandatory use of the E-Verify employment-verification system for agricultural employment once all other provisions have been implemented, with safeguards against incorrect rejections of people authorized to work in the United States.

Other agricultural organizations joined the California Farm Bureau in support of the bill.

Western Growers President and CEO Dave Puglia called the bill the culmination of nearly a decade of negotiations and “an important first step toward resolving, once and for all, one of the biggest challenges facing American farmers.”

California Fresh Fruit Association President Ian LeMay said securing a reliable and stable workforce has been a struggle, and that the bill’s reintroduction brings optimism that labor concerns will be addressed.

The president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, Chuck Conner, noted that Lofgren and Newhouse met with agricultural groups last time around to solicit input and build support for the bill.

“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 said.

The U.S. Apple Association applauded the bill’s reintroduction, with president and chief executive Jim Bair calling the bill “a necessary and important first step in addressing the labor crisis growers and other farmers are experiencing.”

Jim Mulhern, president and chief executive of the National Milk Producers Federation, said that “with COVID adding greater uncertainty to the already volatile dairy industry, our producers need access to a stable, legal workforce more now than ever.”

Johansson said the original FWMA earned bipartisan support by addressing both current and future needs for agricultural employers and employees.

“Its reintroduction will stimulate ongoing discussions about immigration policy,” he said. “Its passage would improve agricultural visa programs and accommodate immigrant agricultural employees already in the United States, while enhancing border security.”

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