Agricultural Guestworker Bill Expected to Clear House Committee

From labor disputes cases to labor and employment publications, for your research, you’ll find solutions on Bloomberg Law®. Protect your clients by developing strategies based on Litigation...

By Laura D. Francis

A bill to create a new, streamlined agricultural guestworker program is expected to be approved by the House Judiciary Committee Oct. 25 after Republicans and Democrats staked out their positions the day before.

The Agricultural Guestworker Act ( H.R. 4092) would establish a new H-2C guestworker visa, which would be capped at 450,000 visas per year. That number could rise in subsequent years if the market demands it.

Unlike the current H-2A agricultural guestworker program, the H-2C visa would allow workers to move among employers in the industry and would expand the definition of “agriculture” to include year-round operations such as dairy, forestry, and food processing. The program would be administered by the Agriculture Department.

“Congress should provide a stable, legal agricultural workforce that employers can call upon when sufficient American labor cannot be found,” committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the bill’s sponsor, said during an Oct. 24 markup.

The committee adjourned Oct. 24 after considering several changes to an amendment offered by Goodlatte. Lawmakers adopted Republican changes that would add reporting requirements and surveys aimed at checking to make sure the new program is having the desired effect. But they had yet to vote on the manager’s amendment from Goodlatte, as well as the bill as a whole, prior to leaving the markup for the day.

Opposition on Both Sides

Opposition to the legislation from both Democrats and immigration restrictionists makes it unlikely to pass both chambers of Congress. The markup already was postponed from its original Oct. 4 date because of lobbying pressure from NumbersUSA, an organization that supports lower immigration levels.

Committee Democrats expressed confusion Oct. 24 as to why Republicans would back a measure that they say would flood the market with foreign workers.

Because the visas last for three years and 450,000 new visas are available each year, more than 1 million guestworkers would be in the U.S. at a given time, said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee. Democrats don’t normally complain that immigrants are taking jobs from American workers, but the AG Act would create “an army of guestworkers to do battle” with U.S. workers because it would allow much lower wages for foreign guestworkers, she said.

But Republicans touted the bill as creating a more workable guestworker program that would stabilize the agricultural workforce, which is made up largely of undocumented workers. Those workers wouldn’t be provided a path to citizenship but would be eligible for the guestworker program despite their unauthorized status.

Usually Democrats say there are jobs that U.S. workers won’t do, said Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), chairman of the Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee. “It appears the other side just wants to have an illegal workforce and not a legal workforce,” he said.

Wage Provisions a Focus

Democrats in particular slammed the bill’s wage provisions, going so far as to say the program was akin to indentured servitude, sharecropping, and even slavery. The H-2C program wouldn’t include the adverse effect wage rate, which employers currently must pay under the H-2A program. The AEWR, set annually by the Labor Department, is based on a study of agricultural wages conducted by the USDA.

The bill would require that guestworkers be paid 115 percent of the federal minimum wage (amounting to $8.34 per hour)—or 150 percent of the federal minimum ($10.88 per hour) for poultry workers. That’s much less than the nationwide average AEWR of $12.12 per hour, committee ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.) said.

And even those wages are “illusory” because employers would be permitted to deduct costs such as visa fees, housing, and transportation from workers’ wages under the bill, Lofgren said.

But Republicans said the bill would preserve free market competition that would end up boosting wages. Because workers wouldn’t be tethered to a single employer, growers would have to compete for them by offering the best wages, benefits, and working conditions, Labrador said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura D. Francis in Washington at lfrancis@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com

For More Information

Text of the bill is available at http://src.bna.com/tEq.

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Request Labor & Employment on Bloomberg Law