Apr 1, 2022
Washington holds key to progress on ag labor reform

Custom harvesters, apple and other fruit growers, vegetable growers, dairy farmers, agents, associations and farm labor contractors were treated to a jam-packed agenda at the National Council of Agricultural Employers’ (NCAE) 58th Annual Meeting that concluded Feb. 10.

The two U.S. senators who are leading the charge to wrest a bipartisan ag labor reform bill from their chamber to conference with the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA) that passed the House in March 2021, addressed attendees. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, each provided their take on what will be required to move legislation in this Congress.

Bennet expressed confidence that he could bring his fellow Democrats in support of the legislation while Crapo noted the challenges of securing at least nine of his colleagues to join him in moving the legislation off the Senate floor. Both senators reaffirmed their support to moving the more employer-friendly bill which added a note of optimism to their comments.

And not to be outdone by their Senate colleagues, House of Representatives Jim Costa, D-California, David Valadao, R-California, Maria Salazar, R-Florida and Zoe Lofgren, D-California, similarly shared their views on the prospects of getting legislation onto President Joe Biden’s desk.

Costa, the second-highest ranking Democrat member on the House Ag Committee, cited his dairy background in recognizing that dairymen must have access to a legal workforce and that reform is critical. Valadao, a former dairyman, concurred. However, he also noted that immigration reform is a tough issue for Republicans as more conservative members of the caucus are likely to reject anything someone could refer to as amnesty.

Lofgren, author of the FWMA in the House, recognized NCAE for its support of moving the legislation forward in the process. She recognized that the Senate version would likely differ from what the House has done but pledged to work in good faith to get legislation across the finish line. Salazar reported that she had introduced legislation called the Dignity Act in the lower chamber the previous day and was excited to discuss it with NCAE. She noted her bill would do much of what was included in the FWMA but with a more employer-friendly bent. She said her bill would strengthen border security, as well.

A panel of experts led by NCAE H-2A Committee Chair Ryan Ayres (pictured at top) discussed pinch points in ag employer processes. Not only were H-2A pinch points discussed but similarly, that many of the most vexing pinch points are wounds ill-informed legislatures were imposing in the states. Not only must employers be adept at navigating a restrictive federal bureaucracy, but increasingly states are imposing additional costs on employer viability too.

NCAE members, armed with talking points and personal passion, spent time on Capitol Hill with their members of Congress, reminding them that the reason we have food to eat is because of the commitment of U.S. farmers and ranchers. They stressed in these meetings the importance of assuring American agriculture can remain sustainable given intense foreign competition.

Federal regulatory and legislative updates were provided by attorneys Shawn Packer and Jonathan Sarager. The gentlemen took deep dives into what appears to be a nonstop deluge of new regulations and shared what is and is not happening in the halls of Congress.

Representatives from many government agencies provided presentations to the group. The Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services spoke about their continuing efforts during the pandemic. Department of State Visa Policy Analyst Dale Lim shared tales from the trenches from his policy shop.

The Deputy Special Counsel from the Department of Justice identified hot topics for employers to be aware of in 2022. Chairwoman Charlotte Burrows and Commissioner Keith Sonderling of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reminded attendees of the commission’s focus on protecting against discrimination in the workplace.

Further, the Department of Labor discussed the ongoing licensure issue regarding farm labor contractors and the delays employers were experiencing. NCAE followed this discussion up with a letter to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh encouraging his office to get involved in resolving these delays.

NCAE’s 58th Annual Meeting was a terrific opportunity for members to welcome re-engagement in an in-person format. It was great to see everyone once again as NCAE charts its course into 2022.

Michael Marsh, president & CEO, National Council of Agricultural Employers; Photo: H-2A Pinch Point Panel featuring H-2A Committee Chair, Ryan Ayres, with FirstFruits Farms; Dave Petrocco, Petrocco Farms; Jim Saunders, Saunders Brothers; and Jamie Fussell. Photo: NCAE


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