Dec 22, 2017
Senators urged by Colorado ag group to fix foreign worker program

The Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association (CFVGA) met last week with the staff of Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and with Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., to appeal for quick legislative action to fix the current foreign worker program before the 2018 growing season. The appeal comes as Colorado fruit and vegetable growers contemplate if they can continue to grow produce given the extreme labor shortage of qualified and willing farm laborers.

Federal legislation to replace the current H-2A foreign agricultural worker program, dubbed H-2C, was introduced this past fall.

“Even though the current program has its shortfalls, causing Colorado growers to be less competitive in the world market, the proposed H2C program would be even worse,” said CFVGA President Robert Sakata, Sakata Farms, Brighton, Colo.

“Let’s not be under the illusion that foreign, temporary produce workers are taking American jobs,” Bruce Talbott, Talbott Mountain Gold, Palisade, Colo., told both senators. “In all the time we’ve used the H-2A program, we’ve had two of 200 foreign workers not complete a contract. During that same time, we’ve had only two Americans complete contracts, and that is only because we have moved them into equipment operation jobs. Our foreign workers return year after year and are glad to have the work and what we pay them. Americans just do not want this intensive work for a time limited harvest season.”

Talbott and other growers told the senators the H-2A requirements for recruiting American workers are burdensome and costly with virtually no return on their efforts and that the requirements also create untimely delays getting workers.

Ryan Fagerberg, Fagerberg Produce, Eaton, Colo., said 2017 was the first year his family’s operation used H2A. “We were happy with the results and the assurance we would have the labor we needed, but it did increase our labor costs 30-40 percent, due to the additional fees, travel costs for workers and housing requirements.”

Gardner told the growers he believes there is a better chance of enacting a good guest worker program once legislation to secure the border is put in place. He believes this action needs to be taken prior to expiration of the DACA program, which enables children brought to the United States illegally by their parents to remain and seek citizenship.

“I don’t know how much longer we will be able to continue raising fruits and vegetables, given all the regulatory requirements, and even more so this labor shortage,” said David Asbury, Rocky Mountain Pumpkin Ranch, Longmont, Colo. “The H2A program requires us to provide housing for our workers, but renting houses for such a short period is difficult, and here in Boulder County, the average cost of a home is $400,000, with prices in Boulder itself close to $1 million. That isn’t sustainable.”

CFVGA produce growers attending these meetings, told both senators that an effective guest worker program must:

  • Not have a worker cap limiting the number of seasonal agricultural workers
  • Change the requirements to recruit American laborers that more closely fit local availability
  • Not require e-Verify, a system that has slowed hiring and flagged legal workers inaccurately until a workable seasonal guest worker is up and running and the E-verify system is accurate and reliable
  • Change housing requirements to allow employers to provide housing vouchers in lieu of providing housing and making housing requirements compatible with local community availability
  • Calculate the wage rate for guest workers on a more realistic basis, rather than the current adverse wage rate, taking into consideration the financial benefits of housing and transportation that are provided
  • Move program to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which understands agricultural operations, especially the time-sensitivity of agricultural labor
  • Allow area farmers to share guest workers to meet ever changing operational needs
  • Provide flexibility to meet the needs of shorter growing and harvest seasons of produce growers in states with seasonal production

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