Thursday, February 14, 2008

H-2A "patch" proposed

The H-2A program is the temporary agricultural worker program for growers and producers in most agricultural industries. In a joint media briefing by Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, and Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner, two separate sets of regulations have been proposed for public comment: the Department of Labor's proposals to "modernize" the program and Homeland Security proposals on the hiring process itself.

The current H-2A program is unpopular with employers — only about two percent of agricultural workers come in under the H-2A program. Growers typically do not fully utilize the program because it is expensive, litigious and [quite frankly] bureaucratic. In the face of increased enforcement and a decreasing labor force, the inability to secure sufficient workers means that crops are rotting in the field in many industries and there is a less stable supply of workers available for growers in the Green Industry. One of the many problems with the current system is that the Department of Labor consistently fails to meet its own deadlines required by law, therefore farmers cannot depend on the program's promise to provide the correct number of workers at the correct time.

The new regulations being proposed would provide some relief, but in other areas raise serious concerns. On one hand the new rules include changing the process employers must go through to apply for workers, making it less burdensome. However, the proposal also would allow the Labor Department to start random audits of H-2A employers, and increase the fines from $1,000 to $15,000 for employers who have displaced American workers by hiring foreign ones. Other fines would increase for violating regulations from $1,000 to $5,000. In addition, under the proposed changes, wages would be based on "skill levels" and the wage formulas are changed.

Obviously, the proposal is long, complex and needs careful review, but it probably represents a good first step. However, since H-2A reform alone cannot address the breadth and depth of the agricultural labor crisis, there is still a desperate need for overarching immigration reform that will will provide the industry with a workable guestworker program. If Congress fails to act, employers will undoubtedly face a plethora of state and local laws, increased enforcement, and a new "No-Match" rule, which is expected shortly.


David said...

How do we make comments on the federal proposals?

Dr. Charlie Hall said...

The very best way is to contact legislators yourself -- in person, via phone or fax or email. Forget the mail system as it is monitored for explosives and harmful materials and takes too long. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is more effective than your own story told directly to your own Congressmen and Senators. If this is outside of your comfort zone, then put your story in writing and use your state nursery and landscape association to be your voice. Join the legislative efforts of ANLA (see Let me close this soapbox by saying this: Yes, I know what I have just said seems overly simplistic. But I cannot overemphasize the fact that YOUR voice with YOUR story is a very powerful thing in your state legislature and in Washington. Is it a frustrating process? Yes. Does it seem at times that you are only spinning your wheels? Yes. Will there be days that you question whether anybody is listening? Yes. Is it worth it in the end? Absolutely.