Goodlatte Bill Seeks Adequate Legal Supply of Farm Workers

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By Teaganne Finn

A fast-moving bill sponsored by the House Judiciary Committee chairman would revamp the agricultural guest-worker program, aiming to ensure a sufficient supply of legal farm workers.

Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) introduced the bill Oct. 2 and scheduled a full committee vote on it Oct. 4.

The Agricultural Guest Worker Act of 2017 would get rid of the H-2A visa program, rename it H-2C, and house it within the Department of Agriculture.

“For far too long, the broken H-2A guestworker program has buried American farmers in red tape and excessive costs without delivering access to a stable and reliable workforce,” Goodlatte said in a press release.

Under his proposed guestworker program, year-round employers would be covered, including industries such as dairies, aquaculture operations, and food processors that aren’t included in the H-2A.

Also, Goodlatte’s bill would allow undocumented farm workers to apply for H-2C visas so they can work legally. The program would also give workers in specialized jobs an initial stay of 36 months, and subsequent visas would last for an 18-month work period.

Mixed Reactions

Goodlatte’s bill has received praise and backlash.

The National Milk Producers Federation and more than 50 other dairy cooperatives wrote a letter backing the bill.

The bill is a “significant step forward” for dairy farms and recognizes “the need to move past the status quo and pursue a new approach to matching the supply and demand for workers,” NMPF President and CEO Jim Mulhern said in a press release.

Although many of the provisions in Goodlatte’s bill are supported by farm proponents, other changes, such as the proposed cap of 500,000 visas, could be problematic.

Paul Schlegel, the director of environment and energy at the American Farm Bureau Federation, told Bloomberg BNA the bill would help assure growers they will have a legal source of labor, but he is concerned about the cap.

“We need to make sure if you’re a grower you can get legal labor to harvest your crops,” said Schlegel.

However, while Goodlatte’s bill would include a cap, it has a mechanism to lift it if the 500,000 figure is reached.

Other groups including the United Farm Workers organization and a broad coalition of almost 150 groups urging Congress the bill would “undermine the wages and working conditions of all agriculture workers” and “will create even more unfairness and dysfunction in our already broken immigration system.”

“This legislation is unworkable and an anti-worker approach to resolving legal labor issues,” Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farmers Workers, told Bloomberg BNA.

There were 27 million foreign-born persons in the U.S. labor force as of 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a slight increase from the previous year when it was to closer to 26 million.

Hashing It Out

As of now, the H-2A program only allows guestworkers to work through a contract-based agreement. Goodlatte’s bill would give workers an option to do a contract or an “at will” program, which would give workers 30 days after their contract ends to find employment.

The National Farmers Union sees the bill as an important first step.

The bill “makes a number of improvements to the current system, which has been extremely problematic for producers,” Zack Clark, director of government relations at NFU, told Bloomberg BNA.

Clark also said there are “outstanding issues that must be addressed for the benefit of American agriculture that NFU will work to ensure as the process moves forward.”

Schlegel at AFBF said the bill “does address the key issues we need to have addressed,” and expressed optimism that Goodlatte will address the issues of concern.

“We need a solution and we need to get a bill moving,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Teaganne Finn in Washington at tfinn@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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