Michael Marsh

Oct 5, 2020
Headlines a mixed bag, much like ag labor progress

The headline of the article was a real attention grabber! In fact, I looked twice to make sure I had read it properly.

To tell you the truth, I was a bit skeptical at first. I kind of felt as if I was reading a headline from one of those tabloids, I might see at the grocery store checkout. A headline that rivets your curiosity like, “Three-Legged Woman is a Terrific Dancer!”

Am I right? I mean, you have to look.

There, in the business section, was a story that divulged a curiosity of the COVID-19 pandemic relative to consumer buying habits. Consumer research identified that consumption of one product was way, way up as Americans sheltered in place, and that consumption of another product was way, way down. The story pointed out, at least for one well-diversified multinational company, its very diversification was shielding the company’s profitability from tumbling.

As I read the article, I was thrilled that the product seeing a surge in purchases had a direct connection to farmers. As U.S. households have hunkered down and practiced social distancing, sales of ice cream have boomed. The story went on to say that while that jump in ice cream sales was occurring, sales of underarm deodorant had tanked.

Interesting juxtaposition.

This year in agricultural labor has been a curiosity, too.

In Washington, D.C., my colleagues and I started the year working on the Senate side of the Capitol. We were pressing to find Republicans and Democrats willing to work with one another in the chamber to advance a companion bill to the Farm Workforce Modernization Act that passed the House in December. The Republican-controlled Senate showed little interest in simply picking up the House bill and advancing it, so we set about providing suggestions to senators to make their version more employer-friendly. And, we were having success.

Then, not long after National Council of Educational Employers’ (NCAE) annual meeting in D.C., the president declared a national emergency over the spread of the coronavirus and our focus at the council shifted dramatically. No longer were we able to focus on meetings in the Capitol to advance labor reform legislation. The Capitol was closed to those types of meetings.

Our focus shifted to making sure our members could find enough workers to help with the planting, care and ultimate harvest of their crops. We pressed our case with the administration to assist us in this effort. We asked for their help and it was provided. Agricultural workers were deemed, as farmers and ranchers have always known them to be, as “essential.”

So, even as stores ran short of “essentials” such as toilet paper and bleach, agricultural “essential workers” stayed on the job to assure our national security was not jeopardized by food shortages. And, the employers of these essential workers, America’s farmers and ranchers, stepped up to the plate big time!

Within days, employers shifted protocols to protect workers. They put in place rules to “socially distance” workers in the fields, orchards, barns, transportation and worker housing. Employers went into the market to secure personal protective equipment for workers, unfortunately having to compete with first responders for the same type of gear. However, for the employer, the safety of employees was the top priority.

Workplace safety plans were developed and then modified as government guidance shifted and scientific understanding of the virus became more robust. The employer response was outstanding in the face of anti-farmer activists and labor unions who persistently tried to undermine and denigrate the very safety and biosecurity protocols employers put in place to protect their workers, their families and themselves. I guess the activists’ behavior gives credence to the adage that, “no good deed goes unpunished.”

At NCAE, we recognize that today we are not through this yet. The pandemic and its consequences remain in the forefront of our members’ minds. And, for our organization, we know we cannot take our foot off the gas. We must keep after it every day, just as our members do 24/7. I want the readers of this article to keep that in mind.

One other thing I would urge readers to keep in mind, harkens back to where this article started. Remember, at the end of your day, when snuggling with your significant other and catching an evening movie in lockdown while enjoying a delicious dish of ice cream, be sure to mind the pits.

— Michael Marsh, president & CEO, National Council of Agricultural Employers


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