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Senate hearing focuses on need for ag labor reform

July 23, 2021

Dairy and pork industries promote need for year-round labor in comprehensive labor reform.

By: Jacqui Fatka 

The future of undocumented farmworkers and needed changes in securing agricultural labor were the focus of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on July 21 featuring over two hours of questioning of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack during the first panel and additional testimony offered by the United Farm Workers as well as a pork producer and dairy farmer.

During his opening statement, Vilsack discussed the important role immigrant farmworkers have in the food and agriculture industry and the overall economy. He also voiced support for passage of the bipartisan, House-passed Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021, legislation that would provide undocumented farmworkers – many of whom have lived in America for years – an opportunity to earn citizenship.

“We have an uncertain and, we can argue, a broken immigration system. The availability of H-2A workers is always in question. Wage increases and decreases are fluctuating year-to-year on an uncertain path. There’s a cumbersome process involved. There are uneven worker protections,” Vilsack testifies.

The agricultural industry and the nation rely on approximately 2.4 million farmworkers, including the roughly 1.2 million U.S. citizens (29%) and legal permanent residents (21%), combined with the roughly 49% who are undocumented. In FY 2020, more than 213,000 agricultural workers entered the country to perform seasonal and temporary work with H-2A visas, explains Arturo Rodriguez, president emeritus of the United Farm Workers union and long-time advocate for a pathway to citizenship for farmworkers.

In recent weeks, Vilsack has been an outspoken advocate on securing a pathway to legalizing undocumented farmworkers. During the hearing he came under fire from many senators on the House’s phased in approach to increasing H-2A workers, and also for not first securing the border before providing what some call amnesty for all farmworkers currently in the country.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would allow a limited number of H-2A visas for year-round jobs—up to 20,000 per year in the first three years—with adjustments to the cap through ten years, followed by an assessment each year thereafter of whether there should be a cap and what it should be, based on specified factors. Employers seeking to access the H-2A program for year-round employment, however, would be required to provide additional protections, including family housing and an annual paid trip home. In addition, dairy farms—where year-round jobs are common—would be required to report injuries and deaths to Occupational Safety and Hazards Administration, regardless of the dairy size, and to establish a workplace safety plan, including protections against sexual harassment.

Vilsack supported the staged increase of H-2A year-round workers to “learn to walk before you run” and see if the process works and determine if at that point of time if additional adjustments need to be made.

In response to questioning on challenges ag employers face in securing labor, National Pork Producers Council President Jen Sorenson says estimates indicate there is a 25-30% shortage of workers on pork farms and in packing plants. “The H-2A uncapped for year-round labor is the only type of program that matches the size of issues our industry currently faces,” Sorenson shares.

She adds, while NPPC believes the House bill is a step in the right direction, “a cap will force different sectors of livestock agriculture to compete against one another for the same limited number of year-round visas. In that scenario, no one wins and, ultimately, the consumer will be punished with reduced pork supplies and higher prices at the store,” Sorenson explains.

Linnea Kooistra, formerly an Illinois dairy farmer for over 40 years, also testifies of the importance of dairy farms having access to a year-round labor force. She and her husband had about 300 cows and 250 young animals to care for and milk every day. They had three full time employees and two part time employees. Right around the year 2000, they switched to an immigrant workforce.

“Our decision to sell the cows in 2018 was in part because we were worried about losing our workforce. The atmosphere regarding immigrants in the workforce was hostile,” she says.

Kooistra adds, “I am here to tell you how essential these workers are to ALL dairy farmers, and critical to our nation’s food supply. 51% of the labor on dairy farms is from immigrants…. If the U.S. dairy industry lost its foreign-born workforce, it would nearly double retail milk prices and cost the U.S. economy more than $32 billion, according to a study by Texas A & M University.”

In a statement following the hearing National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jim Mulhern adds, “Immigrant employees are vital to the dairy industry, with an estimated 79% of the U.S. milk supply produced on farms that employ immigrant workers. Dairy farmers know firsthand of dedicated and skilled teams that are led by and include immigrants; most producers also can speak to the challenges farms and rural communities face due to uncertainty surrounding the farm workforce,” explains.

Mulhern urges the Senate to seize the present opportunity to craft its own ag workforce reform bill that both provides legal protections to current workers and restructures H-2A. “Do not miss this chance for a real solution that helps farmers and farmworkers and supports them as they continue their crucial work of feeding our nation and the world” Mulhern says.

“Providing an earned legal protection for current workers is crucial, but it narrowly addresses only one aspect of the crisis. We must also reform the ag labor system so dairy farmers can hire legal guestworkers and do not remain trapped in a still-broken ag labor system moving forward. Both features must be present in any real solution,” Mulhern says.

Amnesty concerns

Whatever Congress adopts, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, says any legalization for farmworkers must be coupled with a plan to replace those who leave the ag workforce. “We should not move only the legalization element of the proposal independent of the guestworker provisions, and we still need to make changes in the guestworker provisions.”

Both Cornyn and Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, voiced concerns about “amnesty” and an exodus of current ag workers if provided a pathway to citizenship.

Rodriguez says the reality is that UFW has have worked very hard with the ag industry and Republicans in the House legislation to “ensure that in fact those workers who are working here today in agriculture will continue working here in agriculture for years to come,” he says.

As a result, the House bill required in order to be considered for the pathway to citizenship, workers had to previously worked for two years in agriculture just to get the certified agriculture workforce status, and also promise to work minimally another four years in agriculture.