A bill aimed at easing the nationwide shortage of farm labor that has led many Washington growers to lose money won’t get a summer vote in Congress.
The House of Representatives legislation would make it easier for employers to bring in people from other countries for temporary agricultural work, offer legal status to undocumented farmworkers already living in the U.S., and require that employers use a system that confirms work eligibility.
H.R. 6417 was hobbled by divisions nationally within the farm community over how to address the labor shortage. The House adjourned for the summer on July 26.
The legislation has been closely monitored by Washington fruit growers, who have increasingly struggled to find the tens of thousands of workers they need to bring in the harvest.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R- Sunnyside, a bill co-sponsor, said in June he had a commitment from House leadership for a vote in July. When that didn’t happen, Newhouse said in a written statement that he would continue to push for a vote once the House reconvenes in September. But getting action on legislation this fall will likely prove difficult as the November election looms.
Critics say the bill does not do enough to address the labor shortages and that undocumented farmworkers would balk at becoming part of a program that turns them into a temporary workforce, with a requirement that they periodically leave the United States. Those foreign stays must be at least 60 days, and are intended to keep them from permanently settling in America.
“Many of our farmworkers have lived in the U.S. for years, decades in some cases, and have families with deep ties to their local communities,” wrote Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers and Jamie Johansson, president of the California Farm Bureau in a July 20 column published in The Fresno Bee. The piece praised House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. — who hopes to succeed Paul Ryan as House speaker — for “standing firm” with California farmers opposed to the bill.
Farmworker advocates also have attacked the bill, citing concerns including the removal of some labor protections for guest workers, and the undermining of bargaining power.
In Washington, agricultural wages, spurred by labor shortages, have been on the rise. To bring in their crops, farmers and growers have increasingly turned to guest workers brought in under the H-2A visa program, which allows foreign workers to do temporary agricultural work in the United States. In a survey by the Washington Policy Center of the 2016 growing season, more than half of the respondents reported financial losses due to “labor disruptions,” often because they could not get their crops picked at their peak to sell for the highest prices.
In addition to co-sponsoring the farm-labor bill, Newhouse backed an amendment to a Homeland Security Appropriations bill that would expand that visa program to dairy farmers and other operations that need year-round help.
For Washington growers, many H-2A workers are employed for the apple harvest, which begins this month and extends into the fall.
Farmers must pay H-2A guest workers — and anyone else working in an orchard using these workers — at least the minimum wages established by the federal Department of Labor. These rates are set with help from the state Employment Security Department that conducts grower wage surveys.
But this year, the state survey failed to get the number of grower responses required by the federal government survey. So the Labor Department set the minimum wage at $14.12 an hour, rather than by piece rates — keyed to productivity — that often have enabled apple pickers to earn $18 an hour or more.
Washington state’s Employment Security Division said its survey still offers a valid assessment of wages paid by growers. In a July 26 letter to the U.S. Labor Department, it asked for reconsideration of the minimum wage, saying the federal decision would lead to a “large decrease in the required wage for workers in the Washington apple harvest.”
The Labor Department has agreed to talk about the issue with state officials, according to Bill Tarrow, an Employment Security spokesman.