WASHINGTON -- Late on Wednesday afternoon, the House Judiciary Committee approved H.R.4092, the Agricultural Guestworker Act (AG Act) on a close 17-16 vote. The Committee’s action is just the first step in what will be a long and important legislative process. Federal legislation is needed to fully address the labor crisis afflicting agriculture and horticulture in America. Chairman Bob Goodlatte and the Committee have tackled this challenge by drafting a bill that revamps the H-2A guest worker program, which he considers dysfunctional and difficult for the business owners who rely on it.
"It is a costly, time-consuming, and flawed program," Goodlatte said in a statement. "They must expend a great deal of time and money each season in order to prove to the federal government what nearly everybody already knows to be the case: legal, dependable domestic farm labor is very hard to find."
The bill, H.R. 4092, creates a H-2A replacement to be known as the H-2C guest worker program. In addition providing a route for agricultural businesses to find seasonal labor, H-2C is designed to be used by year-round employers, including dairies, food processors and aquaculture operations. The AG Act would also allow experienced unauthorized agricultural workers to join the H-2C program and provides more flexibility to participating employers with respect to housing and transportation.
Goodlatte said the Ag Act "will not recreate the pitfalls of the H-2A program. It will not require growers to hire and train unneeded workers after they have engaged in domestic recruitment and their guestworkers have arrived;
provide free housing and transportation; or pay an unrealistic and uncompetitive wage rate dreamt up by Labor Department bureaucrats."
Goodlatte made several revisions to the bill during the mark-up process, in response to concerns from several Committee members.
- H-2C will become available 6 months after enactment. In the interim, illegal workers are afforded no protection from enforcement;
- No green cards are set aside for experienced agricultural workers;
- The total cap is reduced to 450,000. 40,000 visas are for meat processing; 410,000 visas are for the remainder of agricultural jobs;
- Each H-2C worker must have health insurance coverage;
- Employers must pay H-2C workers in the meat processing sector not less than the State or local minimum wage, 150% of the Federal minimum wage, or the actual wage earned by other workers in the same job, whichever is greatest; and
- Any duties and enforcement responsibilities that DHS currently has under the H2A program will remain at DHS under the H-2C program.
From its first draft, industry advocates have noted the bill has some attractive features but also some significant flaws. In a statement, Craig Regelbrugge, vice president for Government Relations for AmericanHort, said that some of the bill’s shortcomings appear to have been made worse during the Committee's mark-up period.
"It is vital that these shortcomings, notably including the cap and current workforce treatment, are addressed as legislation moves through the process," Regelbrugge said. "This is especially true if and as the bill is moving in tandem with legislation mandating that all employers use the federal E-Verify program within a short period of time."
Now that the bill has made it through the Committee, there is still potential for improvement if it is taken up by the full House and possibly the Senate.
"The bill... will not solve the labor challenges affecting our nursery and greenhouse grower community and the rest of America’s labor-intensive agriculture," Regelbrugge said. "It remains to be seen whether it will be a first step and a catalyst for a legislative solution that will meet the challenge."
From a policy perspective, AmericanHort has advocated for a three-part solution to the agricultural component of our nation’s immigration system challenges: a more reliable worker visa program to meet current and future labor challenges; practical and sensible options for the current workers to attain legal presence, work authorization, and protection for their families; and integrity and compliance certainty in the hiring process.