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Rep. Yoho offers new solution to ag labor crisis

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Bill would reform H-2A program and offer non-amnesty approach to three-year worker visa for year-round labor needs.

The White House and the largest agricultural group, the American Farm Bureau Federation, did not support a House agricultural labor bill that advanced late in 2019. That may change with a new bill from Rep. Ted Yoho (R., Fla.) that offers reforms to the H-2A program and a three-year program for year-round agricultural workers while avoiding amnesty and still helping provide the workforce needed for the agriculture industry.

In a call with media on Tuesday afternoon ahead of the bill's formal introduction, Yoho shared details on his Labor Certainty for Food Security Act, which includes several components of an agricultural workforce bill sought by the industry. Yoho, who said he started off working in produce fields at the age of 15 and was a large-animal veterinarian for 28 years, knows firsthand the need to fix the current broken system.

“There are enough variables in agriculture. Ag labor should not be one of them,” Yoho said. “Our goal is for a reliable, predictable workforce.”

For starters, the current H-2A program is housed at the U.S. Department of Labor, and this bill would move the agricultural worker program to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for oversight, administration and permitting.

All workers will be enrolled in E-Verify and provided with a 15-digit identification (ID) number. Yoho likened it to the Transportation Security Administration's PreCheck program and said it allows employers to know if the worker has been cleared with the background check. The ID would also include “ag” at the end of the 15-digit number to work in the agriculture sector only. It would also include certain biometric information for use by USDA to give employers positive proof that the migrant workers are who they say they are, he added.

It is a year-round program that allows individuals to apply to work for a three-year period and gives them the ability to reapply for another three years after 2.5 years. The price for the three-year program is $2,500, and anyone who is here illegally would pay the one-time fine of $2,500, admitting that they broke U.S. immigration laws.

Yoho said this is “not a pathway to citizenship but does not preclude anyone for applying for citizenship.” Amnesty was a major component of the bipartisan bill that advanced out of the House but is a component President Donald Trump does not support. It also protects all family members if someone is on a three-year work program.

The bill makes changes to the H-2A program so it is truly seasonal, provides flexibility on start dates and wages and allows workers to move from one farm to another without heavy petition, Yoho said.

The legislation also aims to “redefine” what constitutes an agricultural worker as being anyone working along the food chain until a product reaches the first wholesaler. This would include truck drivers picking up produce in the field or meat processing facilities or even someone in the egg business who does washing, grading or packaging eggs.

Brian Kaveney, spokesman for Yoho, said there is a lot of interest from members and the agricultural industry as the lawmaker begins the process of obtaining co-sponsors. Kaveney also said they’re working on getting a Senate lead -- something the House bipartisan group has not accomplished for its Farm Workforce Modernization Act. Yoho did not support the previous House bill and wasn’t included in those discussions, which lasted more than nine months.

TAGS: Policy
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