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Senator Feinstein Introduces Legislation to Relieve Labor Crisis in Agriculture

- Bill would provide steady and reliable workforce for farmers-

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) today re-introduced legislation to provide much-needed relief to the nation’s ongoing agriculture labor shortage.

The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act (AgJOBS) would reform the broken H-2A seasonal worker program, provide farmers with the stable, legal workforce they deserve, and offer a pathway to citizenship for hard-working, law-abiding immigrants already employed on American farms.

“Today across the United States, there are not enough agricultural workers to pick, prune, pack or harvest our country’s crops. With an inadequate supply of workers, farmers from Maine to California, and from Washington State to Georgia, have watched their produce rot and their farms lay fallow over the years,” Senator Feinstein said.

“As a result, billions of dollars are being drained out of our already struggling economy. This legislation would help to ensure a consistent, reliable agriculture work force to ensure that farmers and growers never again lose their crops because of a lack of workers.”

Sixteen senators have signed on as co-sponsors: Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.); Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.); Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.); Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.);  Robert Casey (D-Pa.); Chris Dodd (D-Conn.); Russ Feingold (D-Wis.); Ted Kauffman (D-Del.); Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.); John Kerry (D-Mass.); Herb Kohl (D-Wis.); Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.); Carl Levin (D-Mich.); Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.); Patty Murray (D-Wash.); and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.)

“In Vermont, as in many states across the country, farmers are feeling the effects of a scarce labor pool,” said Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) “This problem is particularly acute for the dairy industry, where the employment needs are year-round and require a significant investment from the farmer in terms of training and development.  I have long been concerned about the dairy farmers’ difficulties in trying to use the agricultural visa program.  The AgJOBS bill will give dairy farmers needing workers the opportunity to lawfully hire foreign workers who can remain with their employers for a meaningful period of time.”

“California’s farmers and growers are still waiting for a solution to the persistent labor shortages that each year cost our state’s agricultural economy billions of dollars,” said Senator Boxer (D-Calif.)  “The AgJobs bill will provide our agricultural community with a stable and reliable workforce, and I look forward to working with Senator Feinstein and my colleagues to see that this bill finally becomes law.”

“During these rough economic times, our own farmers can’t find enough workers,” said Senator Nelson (D-Fla.)  “And the system for bringing agricultural workers here legally is broken.   We need to get it fixed, which is why we’re pressing for this legislation.”

The AgJOBS bill is a two-part bill. The first part would create a five-year pilot program to identify undocumented agricultural workers and legalize the immigration status for those who have been working in the United States for the past two years or more. The second part would reform the H-2A visa system to provide farmers and growers with a legal path to bring guest workers to the United States to harvest their crops.

The labor needs of the nation’s agriculture industry remain consistent. Across the country, farmers are reporting that they do not have enough labor to plant, tend and harvest their crops. There are not enough workers to milk cows. As a result, farmers have been forced to decrease the size of their farms and switch to less labor intensive and less profitable crops. Efforts have been made for years to get Americans to do the work, but they simply won’t do it.

Other farmers are simply closing up shop.  Between 2007 and 2008, 1.56 million acres of farmland were shut down in the United States.

Consider some of these stories:

  • Keith Eckel, of Clarks Summit, Pa. was one of the largest tomato growers in the Northeast. For seven weeks a year, 120 workers would pick, pack and ship 125 trailer loads of tomatoes. But in March 2008, after decades of growing tomatoes, he announced he was calling it quits. State, local and federal crackdowns on illegal immigration broke his supply chain of laborers and he feared that the labor he needed to harvest his tomatoes wouldn’t be there when he needed it. His tomato crop was valued at $1.5 million to $2 million. In the year before closing down, Eckel had planted 2.3 million tomato plants on 340 acres, supplying nearly 75 percent of the fresh tomatoes in produce aisles between Boston and Washington, D.C.
  • Gebbers Farms, located in Washington’s Cascade Range, operates one of the largest apple orchards in the world, with more than 5,000 acres. The company, in business for more than a century, has persistently struggled to find enough workers for recent harvests. Since 2005, the fruit has gone unpicked and much of what was picked came off the trees too late. (Associated Press “Farm Worker Programs Debated as Economy Sours” 2/11/09)
  • Steve Scaroni couldn’t find enough workers to work at his lettuce processing plant in California. So he moved the plant to Guanajuato, Mexico to get the labor force that he needed. He now has 2,000 acres in Mexico and 500 employees. He exports to the United States about 2 million pounds of lettuce a week. In fact, American farmers have moved more than 84,000 acres of agriculture production and 22,285 jobs to the Mexican states of Baja California, Sonora and Guanajuato.

If Congress does not act quickly to pass AgJOBS, the United States stands to lose $5 billion to $9 billion in sales to foreign competition in the next year or two. California lost nearly $1 billion between 2005 and 2006. It is estimated that the state will lose between $1.7 billion in sales in the next year. 
When farmers suffer, there is a ripple effect felt throughout the economy, including in farm equipment manufacturing, packaging, processing, transportation, marketing, lending and insurance. For every job lost on family farms and ranches, the country loses approximately three jobs in other agriculture-related industries.

Many industries depend heavily on agribusiness for survival. Take California’s Port of Oakland: last year more than 750 metric tons of agricultural products worth roughly $2.64 billion were shipped through the port, representing 40 percent of the port’s exports.

“The central issue here is not immigration – it is about protecting and preserving the American economy,” Senator Feinstein said. “We in Congress should be doing everything possible to prevent U.S. farms from shutting down.”

This new legislation has been negotiated with and is backed by both laborers and growers. Well over 200 national and state agricultural organizations have signed on in support, including Western Growers, the Dairy Farmers of America, the National Cattlemens’ Beef Association, the National Milk Producers Federation and the National Council of Agricultural Employers.

Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) have introduced companion legislation in the House.

Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act (AgJOBS)

  • Undocumented agriculture workers would be eligible for a “blue card” if they can demonstrate having worked in American agriculture for at least 150 work days (or 863 hours) over the previous two years before December 31, 2008. 
  • The blue card holder would be required to work in American agriculture for an additional three years (working at least150 work days per year) or five years (working at least 100 work days per year), before becoming eligible to apply for a green card to become a permanent legal resident.
  • The blue card would entitle the worker to a temporary legal resident status. The total number of blue cards would be capped at 1.35 million over a five-year period, and the program would sunset after five years. 
  • Before applying for a green card, participants would be required to pay a fine of $500, show that they are current on their taxes, and show that they have not been convicted of any crime that involves bodily injury, the threat of serious bodily injury, or harm to property in excess of $500. 
  • Employment would be verified through employer issued statements, pay stubs, W-2 forms, employer contracts, time cards, employer sponsored health care or payment of taxes. 
  • All blue cards would have encrypted, biometric identifiers and contain other anti-counterfeiting protection. 
  • The bill also would streamline the H-2A seasonal worker program so that it realistically responds to agriculture needs. 
  • The bill would shorten the labor certification process, which now often takes 60 days or more, and reduce the approval time to 48 to 72 hours. 
  • The bill also would require that growers first advertise and recruit U.S. workers in the local area by filing job notifications with state employment agencies. 
  • The Department of Labor would be required to process H-2A applications within 7 days and notify the consulate or port of entry within 7 days of receipt.
  • The Adverse Effect Wage Rate would be frozen for three years, to be gradually replaced with a prevailing wage standard. 
  • H-2A visas would be secure and counterfeit resistant.