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Ag groups criticize mandatory E-Verify without program to supply farm labor

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By Dave Natzke

 

Member organizations of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR) held a news teleconference, June 16, warning the Legal Workforce Act introduced this week could have detrimental consequences for U.S. food security. Leaders of the organizations said mandatory implementation of E-Verify, without a program to help agriculture find a legal and stable labor supply, also threatened thousands of farms, as well as off-farm jobs throughout the food chain.

 

“Any reform must meet the current and future labor needs of agriculture,” said Chuck Connor, president and CEO, National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC). “Without it, the economics of many U.S. farmers and their farm employees are at risk.

 

“The economic damage will not be limited to the farms and ranches,” he added. “Each of the 1.6 million farm employees support 2-3 more full-time American jobs in the food processing, transportation, farm equipment, marketing and other sectors. These are jobs – even in our current economic environment – Americans will not do anymore. The continued production of labor-intensive agricultural crops and products in the U.S. cannot be accomplished without vitally important labor provided by skilled and experienced farm workers. Congress must address agriculture’s needs for stable, legal and reliable workforce. Without people to work on America’s farms and ranchers, all other issues in agriculture become irrelevant.”

 

Wickham: Dairy’s needs differ

“Dairy farmers have a workforce crisis,” noted Greg Wickham, chair of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and chief executive officer of Dairylea Cooperative, Syracuse, N.Y. “Dairy is labor intensive, with cows milked at least twice each day, 365 days a year, including all holidays. While many commodities have harvests over the course of a few weeks ... for dairy farmers, the harvest comes twice each day.

 

“Very few Americans will do these jobs,” he continued. ”My members tell me they place ads in the paper to hire local people, and have not been successful. If people respond, they stay on the job 1-5 days. Even though there are huge unemployment issues, folks are still not willing to do work in the dairy sector.

 

“Dairy needs workers that stay longer than just seasonal,” Wickham said. “In fact, some of our current immigrant workers have been on farms for 2, 3 to 4 years. Typically, because of the training aspects and the intensity, some of the workers become supervisors and managers. We would like (a labor program) that would work for an extended program.”

 

A skilled workforce is important to the dairy industry, and the health and productivity of the cows, he said. And, while other segments of agriculture may have the H-2A guest worker program, those in dairy and livestock operations don’t have a similar legal channel to try to get guest workers.

 

A recent Farm Credit study showed 1,600 farms would go out of business in the Northeast without an adequate workforce, equating to the loss of $1.6 billion in agricultural production, and 20,000 jobs would be adversely affected.

 

“In dairy, we’ve had a pretty tough economic situation over the past 24-30 months, with historically low milk prices and margins that eroded a huge amount of equity,” Wickham explained. ”If we pass E-Verify without provisions to address dairy and livestock workforce, it could be the final nail in the coffin for some of our dairy producers in the Northeast.”

 

”We need a stable workforce now,” he said, noting the fast-growing yogurt processing industry is boosting demand for milk in the Northeast at the same time the labor crisis is growing.

 

While U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has noted agriculture’s challenges, and offered a 1-year extension to implement mandatory E-Verify, this doesn’t solve the problem, Wickham warned. Further, he said, federal and state contractor provisions of the bill could have unintended complications in agriculture, jeopardizing farmers’ abilities to produce milk, meat and fruit and vegetables for school children and military.

 

“Within our coalition, dairy is an extremely important industry,” said ACIR’s Craig Regelbrugge. “It’s a shared problem, and although the specifics may bring different labor force dynamics, the sense we have is roughly half of the dairy labor force has papers that look better than they really are. These workers are skilled in animal care; they know the work.”

 

There are a lot of U.S. jobs connected to the dairy industry, he added, warning that if farms failed, processors would also fail.

 

“As a coalition, we recognize the importance needs and challenges that confront the dairy industry,” Regelbrugge said. “Our guiding philosophy is that solutions that work on the ground will not choose winners or losers among regions, and will not choose winners and losers among agricultural sectors. They have to solve the spectrum of problems in the diversity of the industry.”

 

 

H-2A not working

Tom Nassif, president & CEO, Western Growers Association, Irvine, Calif. said agriculture is not opposed to a secure border, workplace enforcement, employer sanctions or E-Verify. However, if those programs are in place, programs are needed to hire foreign workers other than through the U.S. Department of Labor’s H-2A program, presently the only legal means  to bring in foreign workers. Nassif said H-2A has been broken for many years and cannot be fixed. 

 

“We need a program to deal with people who are illegally here, who are presently working in our fields,” he said. “We have been working for years to get Congress to pass a program, and we haven’t been able to get partisan politics out of the equation. We need the government to give us the legal means of having a stable workforce to work for us to grow, harvest and pack our crops.” 

 

Nassif said consequences of E-Verify without an accompanying labor supply program would decimate the produce industry in the U.S., as well as negatively impact national security, health interests and related jobs filled by U.S. workers. Ironically, he said, diminishing U.S. fruit and vegetable production counters USDA’s new “MyPlate” nutrition education program, as well as efforts to boost U.S. exports.

 

Speakers there is currently no legislation – or lawmaker stepping forward to champion agriculture’s concerns – in Congress. 

 

Regelbrugge said it would be necessary to develop a solution that includes utilizing the current skilled workforce. 

 

“It would make no sense to take the hundreds of thousands of workers who are here, are skilled in the work, and deport them, and then race to provide the structure to bring them back,” he said. “Half to three-quarters of the labor force is unauthorized, and only 2% is coming in through the existing legal channel, you can’t bridge that gap with a program that tries to bring new people here.”

 

Regelbrugge also said Smith’s concession to extend the E-Verify implementation period for agriculture would not solve agriculture’s workforce crisis.

 

“Implementation over a couple of years does not constitute a solution,” he said. “Our industries have been united in seeking a proactive solutions for the past 15 years. We need a solution, and we hope Congress finds the will to map out a way to deliver a solution to ensure we will be farming in this country in the years ahead.”

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