Historic immigration deal forged

Historic immigration deal forged

IN what was called a historic moment, leaders representing both agricultural employers and workers touted comprehensive immigration legislation that would provide a more stable workforce.

The landmark legislation was introduced in the Senate last Wednesday and includes provisions based on agreements made by the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC), United Farm Workers and key lawmakers.

United Fresh chief executive officer Tom Stenzel said the need for a legal, stable, reliable workforce remains the largest challenge for the agriculture industry.

The labor shortage is a problem that's not going to go away.

Stenzel estimated that 2 million farm workers are immigrants and that 1.2 million are working with false documentation.

"Agriculture is going to be key to passing broad immigration reform," Stenzel said.

Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, called the deal a "balanced agreement" that, in the final weeks, focused predominantly on adequate wage limits and a cap on new visas. The bill sets wage floors for the next three fiscal years (Table).

"The important thing for folks to understand is that we have the huge advantage of certainty. Leaving this to a process or a commission ... is fraught with risk and uncertainty," explained Craig J. Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform and vice president of government relations for the American Nursery & Landscape Assn.

Arturo S. Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America, said the agreement contains several provisions that will incentivize workers to stay in the agriculture industry, which was not how things played out in the 1980s. He explained that the legislation offers opportunities whereby the government could look more favorably on issues regarding violations the workers may have committed previously.

The agreement allows current undocumented farm workers to be eligible to obtain legal status through a new blue card program if they choose to continue working in agriculture.

Agricultural workers who can document employment in U.S. agriculture for a minimum of 100 workdays, or 575 hours, prior to Dec. 31, 2012, can move to this new blue card status.

After a minimum of five years, workers who fulfill their blue card work requirements in U.S. agriculture will become eligible to apply for a green card, providing that they have no outstanding taxes, no convictions and pay a fine.

A new agricultural guest worker program will be established, with two work options.

The first is an "at-will" option that allows workers to enter the country to accept a specific job offer from an authorized agricultural employer under a three-year visa. Employees will then be able to move within the country and work "at will" for any other authorized agricultural employer during that time. Employers must provide housing or a housing allowance to these workers.

The other is a "contract-based" option that allows workers to enter the country to accept a specific contract for a specific amount of work from an authorized employer. This will also provide a three-year visa and require employers to provide housing or a housing allowance.

All guest workers will be paid an agreed-upon wage under the terms of this agreement.

There is a visa cap during the first five years of the program while current workers are participating in the blue card program. The bill calls for a cap of 112,333 new visas in the first year and an additional 112,333 in year two or three, which is a maximum of 337,000 by the third year.

The secretary of agriculture has the authority to modify that cap if circumstances show that there is a shortage of workers, Conner said. He noted that the guest worker visa provisions were a very sensitive issue in the negotiations.

The new program will be administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which Conner said will benefit those in agriculture who will be more familiar and comfortable with the current local county office structure.

The work is far from over. Conner noted that it will be a "lengthy process" as the Senate begins full debate of the bill, including hearings.

House members have not formally been involved in the discussions. However, AWC said it met with eight bipartisan House members last week to educate them about the proposal.

Conner did not share their names but noted, "I think what they demonstrated was that they're trying to work together, and that's an important step in this process."

During the press briefing, AWC members recognized that some rural legislators have not been fully supportive of comprehensive immigration reform.

Stenzel noted that with the unification of agricultural employers and workers, it will help "make the difference in those swing votes to support broad immigration reform."

 

Wage rates set within immigration proposal

Job

Hourly wage floor rate (or higher if federal, state or local minimum wage is more)

Graders and sorters,

$9.37 for fiscal 2014

agricultural products

$9.60 for fiscal 2015

 

$9.84 for fiscal 2016

Agricultural equipment operator

$11.30 for fiscal 2014

 

$11.58 for fiscal 2015

 

$11.87 for fiscal 2016

Farmworkers and laborers,

$9.17 for fiscal 2014

crop, nursery and greenhouse

$9.40 for fiscal 2015

 

$9.64 for fiscal 2016

Farmworkers, farm, ranch and

$10.82 for fiscal 2014

aquaculture animals

$11.09 for fiscal 2015

 

$11.37 for fiscal 2016

Agricultural supervisors and animal breeders

No later than Sept. 1, 2015, and annually thereafter, the agriculture secretary, in consultation with the labor secretary, shall establish the prevailing wage for the next fiscal year

Note: In determining the wage rate, the secretary of agriculture may consider appropriate factors, including whether the employment of additional alien workers at the prevailing wage will adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed workers in the U.S. Other issues also include the impact of farm labor costs in the U.S. on the movement of agricultural production to foreign countries and a comparison of the expenses and cost structure of foreign agricultural producers to the expenses incurred by agricultural producers based in the U.S. Each base wage will increase annually by at least 1.5% but no more than 2.5%, as established by the Employment Cost Index.

 

Volume:85 Issue:16

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