While Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB) and the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) have long advocated for comprehensive agricultural labor reforms, the organizations are – unlike others – not being quick to support the Farm Workforce Modernization Act recently introduced in the U.S. House without further improvements.
According to John Kran, MFB’s national legislative counsel, the caution is warranted: The bipartisan bill introduced by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) currently falls short of meeting Farm Bureau’s member-developed policy because some provisions within the proposal either increase farm employers’ vulnerability or simply aren’t a viable long-term solution for the farm sector. Given the last major immigration reform occurred in 1986, Kran explained that Michigan farmers need updates to position them for decades; updates that are forward-thinking and allow them to compete globally.
“There are many good components to the legislation, including a status adjustment for our current workforce that may be undocumented or falsely documented, and allowing dairy and other year-round agriculture jobs to be eligible to participate in the visa program,” Kran said. “At this point, however, there are four specific areas of concern that we’ll need to address and communicate with our Michigan delegation and the bill sponsors on."
“Until these items are better aligned with AFBF policy, we aren’t able to support the proposal,” he added. “Farm Bureau has been at the table throughout the negotiations and will continue to fight for components our members call for in policy as the legislation moves through the process.”
Three of Michigan’s Congressional delegation signed on as cosponsors of the bill, including Reps. Fred Upton, Elissa Slotkin and Paul Mitchell.
Continuation of the Adverse Effect Wage Rate
Within the legislation, the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) would continue, and Farm Bureau is instead advocating to make the wage more market-based and competitive for growers.
“We continue to hear from farmers that the annual growth of the AEWR is not sustainable,” Kran said. “The wage in Michigan has increased nearly $2.00/hour since 2015, from $11.56 to $13.54, and preliminary estimates for 2020 show an even larger annual increase.
“This is much faster wage inflation than other industries are experiencing and is outpacing prices farmers receive for their production… We’d also like to see the bill more aggressively tackle the burdensome cost structure within the H-2A program.”
Arbitrary Visa Caps
Farm Bureau also feels the legislation’s cap on the number of year-round visas doesn’t meet the industry’s needs.
“It’s estimated that more than 500,000 year-round agricultural jobs exist,” Kran said. “And we know that even with the proposed status adjustment for the current undocumented workers, our industry’s workforce continues to age, and we’ll need to rely more heavily on visa workers in the future.”
The bill caps year-round, 36-month visas at 20,000 annually, with ½ set aside for the dairy industry. While that allows for 60,000 by year three, it still does not come close to what agriculture needs in the long run, especially if we continue to experience the decline in our existing workforce. “This does not accurately reflect the number we’ll need long-term to remain competitive.”
In the bill’s current state, agriculture would be the only industry with an E-verify mandate. Farm Bureau believes that before E-verify is mandated there should be full implementation of a usable guest worker program.
Migrant Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act
Last, the legislation places H-2A workers under the Migrant Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, which would grant them – or a worker advocacy organization acting on their behalf – a private right of action, giving them the ability to sue employers in federal court.
AFBF policy explicitly opposes this change within the immigration policy which states in opposition, “Expanding the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act to employers of agricultural temporary workers or otherwise providing those workers with a private right of action, whether expressed or implied, in state or federal court.”