“Agriculture isn’t picky on the vehicle, so long as it’s a vehicle that moves. So, we’re doing our best to work with (those developing the legislation).

“If comprehensive reform stalls, we’ll be pushing for an agriculture-only fix and make sure agriculture’s needs are met.”

On the specifics in the proposals so far…

“What agriculture must have in order to support what comes out of this process includes short-term stability. We must be able to maintain our experienced agricultural workforce.

“We propose a work authorization that requires a commitment to work in agriculture for a set period of time. Whether that turns into a pathway to citizenship or some other form of legal status is a political question that will be decided at a much higher level than ours, frankly.

“However, we must also have long-term stability. We’ll continue to rely on a foreign-born labor force, which we have for more than 20 years. We must have a reform of the guest-worker program to meet future needs.

“What we propose is not a reform of the H-2A program. We propose a new program that is more flexible, more streamlined. It would allow employers to hire workers under a contract or hire workers at will. That would allow portability in the program — a worker could come in and work for multiple agricultural employers during the term of the visa.

“A lot of the elements of the program are in negotiations and discussions so I can’t get into too many details. But at the end of the day, we have to have a guest worker program that’s affordable for employers, that meets the need for a year-round labor force and also is more market-based and less bureaucratic. That would mean workers are coming in on time and meeting the needs of our perishable commodities. The program just has to work on the ground.

“We’re in discussions with the United Farm Workers Union and other labor advocates trying to find a balance for a program that works for employers — that is affordable and efficient — and also treats workers fairly.”

How would you characterize those union negotiations?

“The negotiations have honestly tapered off. We’ve transitioned to direct discussions with Senate and House staff rather than one-on-one conversations with the United Farm Workers Union.

“There was progress made between agriculture and labor advocates over the broad framework. However, when we got into the details of what a wage rate would be and what cap calculations would be, there wasn’t agreement between (the sides).”

What about capping the number of workers that can come into the country annually?

“That’s a huge issue. Frankly, it’ll make or break the program. If the cap is set too low, we’ll be forced to hire underground or go offshore.

(The cap) must be done carefully. The American Farm Bureau and the Agricultural Workforce Coalition opposes an arbitrary, statutory cap. But politically caps seem to be a reality. So, we’re trying to fine-tune in a way that meets agriculture’s needs and provides an ample supply of labor.”

Any indication when this will be taken up in earnest on the floor?

“From all reports, we expect to see something released publically in the next week, or so. We’ll see if that pans out.

 “I think the goal is to have this in committee in May and on the floor in the summer. Maybe it will be even sooner.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that something can be achieved this year. For agriculture this is a very important issue. We need to make sure we get this fixed and the opportunity is available.” 

dbennett@farmpress.com

 

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