Labor remains the one input the livestock industry cannot get a handle on.
“To grow an industry, you need inputs, whether it's fertilizer, feed or whatever. The input of labor is something we really don’t have control over because of the erratic nature of laws that are affecting it. If there could be more certainty with that input, we could grow more,” John Zimmerman, a Minnesota turkey grower and National Turkey Federation executive committee member, said during a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing July 16.
Zimmerman said securing adequate labor continues to be an ongoing problem. In testimony three years ago before the House Agriculture Committee, he shared about the challenges the industry faced without access to a year-round agricultural labor force and said the problem has “only gotten worse” today.
“You can’t raise more birds without more people. We’ve gone down the automation route. A lot of the processing plants have increased automation, but at the end of the day, you still need people in plants to do things. There’s a certain point that you can’t do any more without more people on the ground,” Zimmerman said.
Many processing plants have to employee 120-130% of the people they need because of absenteeism and uncertainty about whether employee s will be deported.
Zimmerman noted that workforce woes are the number-one issue his group is taking to representatives in Washington, D.C. “It is the one input we have the least control over right now. Without people, we can’t function. We need a steady workforce,” he emphasized.
Zimmerman was not alone in calling for changes in agricultural workforce access as other sectors, including poultry and pork, called for changes to the H-2A program that's currently only available for seasonal agricultural workers.
House Agriculture Committee subcommittee on livestock and foreign agriculture chairman Jim Costa (D., Cal.) said many on his committee are working with others on the labor committee to find a solution for agricultural labor. Costa noted that in 2013, the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform 68-32, but it was never brought up for a vote on the House floor.
“We’ve struggled since that time from even doing smaller, limited reform,” Costa said during his round of questioning.
During his opening comments, Costa noted, “For all the rhetoric and emotion that surrounds the immigration debate, livestock and poultry producers know that they depend on a reliable, year-round labor workforce to keep both farms and packing plants running smoothly.”
National Pork Producers Council president David Herring added that the current H-2A program does not work for pig farmers. He said visa reform is needed in order to provide access to a sustainable workforce and keep U.S. producers competitive.
“Without visa reform to support a sustained, viable workforce for U.S. agriculture, animal welfare is jeopardized, and production costs will increase, leading to higher food prices for consumers,” Herring said. “In some cases, a shortage of labor could lead to farmers and packing plants shutting down, causing serious financial harm to those operations and their communities.”
His written testimony highlighted an Iowa State University study detailing how the U.S. pork industry faces a constrained rural labor supply due to an aging native-born workforce and falling birth rates, making access to foreign-born workers a critical matter for the prosperity of rural America.
Labor department changes
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Labor proposed a rule to modernize the H-2A program to reflect stakeholder concerns and improve access to a legal source of agricultural labor.
For example, the proposed rule would streamline the H-2A application process by mandating electronic filing of job orders and applications, promoting the use of digital signatures and providing employers with the option of staggering the entry of H-2A workers on a single application.
The rule also proposes to strengthen protections for U.S. and foreign workers by enhancing standards applicable to rental housing and public accommodations, strengthening surety bond requirements, expanding the department's authority to use enforcement tools like program debarment for substantial violations of program rules and updating the methodologies used to determine the adverse effect wage rates and prevailing wages to ensure that U.S. workers similarly employed are not adversely affected.
A statement from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the proposed rule will “increase access to a reliable legal agricultural workforce, ease unnecessary burdens on farmers, increase enforcement against fraud and abuse, all while maintaining protections for America’s workers.”
The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) welcomed the Administration’s recognition of the need to reform the agricultural guest worker program.
“American farmers and ranchers have long faced challenges in meeting their labor needs and asked for modernization of the H-2A program. This is a lengthy rule, and we intend to evaluate it closely for its potential to assist growers with their labor needs. We are pleased by this development, however, and look forward to submitting comments to the official docket on this proposal,” AFBF president Zippy Duvall said in a statement.
The United Fresh Produce Assn. encouraged the Administration to finalize the reforms. In particular, United Fresh said it is pleased with the electronic filing and digital signature proposal, along with staggering the entry of H-2A workers on a single application.
“Despite these improvements, we all understand a complete overall of the current guest worker program is needed, which will require Congress to make those changes through legislation. In addition, we must find a solution to the current workforce that will work hand in hand with an improved H-2A program. We implore Congress and all interested stakeholders to stay at the table and continue to find a legislative path forward for this type of reform. United Fresh and our members stand ready to continue these discussions and will work with our members across the country to support legislation that accomplishes these goals,” United Fresh said in a statement.