Source: California Farm Bureau Federation

With the goal of easing farm labor shortages, the Bush administration issued changes to the nation's agricultural H-2A guestworker program last week. The program establishes a process through which farmers hire temporary employees from other countries, and the administration said it intends the new rules to ease burdens on employers. But the state's largest agricultural organization says they will only have slight impacts and aren't the overall solution that is needed.

"The real substantive changes the administration makes to the H-2A program are probably helpful in a minor way, but there are still a lot of problems with the program that need to be addressed," said Bryan Little, California Farm Bureau Federation director of labor affairs. "The H-2A program requires a legislative fix to make it useful for California farmers."

Little said Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations will continue to press Congress to adopt a proposal called AgJOBS, legislation supported by both farm and labor groups that would reform the H-2A program. He said AgJOBS would provide flexibility that the current guestworker program lacks, even after the changes announced last week.

The controversial final rules, several months in the making by U.S. labor and immigration officials, were due to be published Dec. 18 and take effect in January. For farmers, long-standing challenges of the H-2A program include the bureaucratic obstacles of the application process, worker-recruitment and housing requirements, high wage costs and other associated hiring costs. The program does not address year-round employment needs in sectors such as dairy farms and nurseries.

Farmers hoping to take advantage of the program must be prepared to open their businesses and employment practices to scrutiny by outsiders and be ready for an increase in adverse publicity and litigation.

Changes made to the H-2A program are intended to streamline the guestworker application process, revise the way wages are calculated and modify requirements for demonstrating that a labor shortage cannot be filled with U.S. workers.

"The final rule improves the H-2A program by allowing farm employers to attest that they have tried to recruit U.S. workers unsuccessfully," Little said.

Farm Bureau expressed satisfaction with other changes to H-2A that include calculating minimum wage requirements for workers in the program on the basis of actual wages in local markets. Many other elements of the program, such as housing, still must be changed to be workable for California, Little said.

"The final rule makes the period in which the state can do inspections of housing a little longer. But that really doesn't fix the underlying problem. H-2A program participants must still provide housing rather than allowing the flexibility to provide workers with additional compensation to find housing on their own.

Unfortunately, the state of California has chosen to make regulation of farmworker housing so burdensome that farmers simply can't provide housing anymore," he said.
Others areas to be reworked include the wage rate structure, finding adequate housing and/or gaining local approval to develop housing, and re-working the increased application fees.

Luawanna Hallstrom, a San Diego County tomato grower who chairs the CFBF Labor Advisory Committee, said she appreciates what the Bush administration has done to streamline the H-2A program. But she said the new rules form simply a quick fix and do not address the issue of farmers' long-term labor needs.

"Agriculture is grateful, however, in order to really resolve the broad issues that we face, both on the seasonal and year-round aspects, we really need to get the AgJOBs legislation through as quickly as we can," said Hallstrom, who participates in the H-2A program. "We need to have a legal and viable work program and part of that is H-2A, part of that is recognizing the year-round skilled work force that is the foundation of our agriculture industry."

With a new presidential administration ready to take office in just weeks, Hallstrom said, she is optimistic that President-elect Barack Obama will address the issue of agricultural labor needs at some point in his presidency.

"While the comprehensive bill is probably crowded out by the economy and it is too big to wrap up within Obama's first term, he will be able to do some incremental work, and AgJOBS is one of the most obvious pieces of legislation that can solve a very critical part of the immigration labor issue," Hallstrom said.

Farm Bureau estimates that California farms and ranches employ some 425,000 people at the seasonal hiring peak each summer. Only about 5,000 of those farm employees enter the state under the existing H-2A program.