A dark cloud hovers over the future of America’s fruits and
vegetable producers as well as other agricultural sectors. The political
climate across the country has led to a proposed bill in Congress
requiring all employers to use E-Verify, a federal system to check the
legal status of employees before they’re hired. Tough new laws
have been passed in Arizona, Georgia and Alabama. Florida narrowly
escaped a similar being passed in the Legislature earlier this year. The
laws are already having a marked affect on the agriculture labor supply.
Without workers, crops go unharvested. And the picture is likely to
get worse, many in the industry say.
What’s the problem?
To be hired to work on a farm or in a packinghouse, job applicants
must show identification to prove they are legally qualified to work in
the United States. If the documents appear in order, an employer accepts
them under the requirements of the government Form I-9. Under the law,
if an employer questions documents, he or she can be accused of
proposed in Congress would require all businesses to use the federal
E-Verify system to check an individual’s legal standing. E-Verify
is managed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and is used by
more than 230,000 businesses. E-Verify checks a migrant worker’s
Form I-9 against 455 million Social Security records and 80 million DHS
records. Critics say the system is flawed and represents government
over-reach. What worries farmers is that it could put them out of
business because they’ll be unable to hire a workforce to plant
and harvest their crops.
Finding domestic workers is often next to impossible, growers say.
Americans have been offered farm jobs, and those who accept them rarely
last through the week, if not the first day. Foreign-born workers are
skilled in agricultural work and have the physical and mental stamina
for the workload. And they are willing to engage in work that is
seasonal and temporary, moving up the east coast to work on other
“All efforts to pass E-Verify are bad strategy and ignore the
impact on domestic food production,” said South Florida vegetable
and sugarcane grower Rick Roth. “Fresh vegetable production is
highly competitive, and efforts to pass E-Verify on a state-by-state
basis will put some producers at an extreme economic disadvantage, and
drive producers into other crops or out of business.”
A visa program is available to bring in foreign workers.
Can’t growers use it?
The current H-2A visa program is cumbersome, expensive, and fraught with
bureaucratic red tape, many growers say. Growers who do use H-2A in
Florida are doing so because Congress and the administration have failed
for years to find a solution to illegal immigration, Roth said.
“The Department of Labor under this administration has made the
program less user-friendly. In addition, there are significantly higher
costs: transportation, housing, overhead costs and the adverse effect
wage rate,” he added.
Blueberries must be picked as soon as they are ready.
H-2A labor doesn't work well for blueberries because of the
program's record of bringing workers in weeks later than the requested
date, says blueberry grower Bill Braswell.
Producers must predict months in advance how many workers they will
need. Making accurate estimates is difficult because so many variables
are outside a grower’s control. Factors such as weather and market
fluctuations have a marked affect on how many workers an operation
needs, and when it will need them.
There are volumes of rules that require a mountain of paperwork.
“Our members have tried the H-2A program and it’s only
resulted in frustration and litigation,” said Reggie Brown,
manager of the Florida Tomato Committee and executive vice president of
the Florida Tomato Exchange. “The rules are so complex that when
you genuinely attempt to use the program you find that it’s not a
practical, functioning program for the tomato industry.”
The wage requirements put growers who use the program at a
disadvantage to those who don’t. Under H-2A, an employer must pay
a wage (called the Adverse Effect Wage Rate) that is typically higher
than the state or federal minimum wage. In Florida, that hourly rate is
$9.50 an hour. Florida employers who hire non-H2A workers are only
required to pay the state’s minimum wage, $7.31 per hour, which
will increase to $7.67 per hour Jan. 1, 2012.
The National Council of Agricultural Employers surveyed farmers who
use the H-2A program. Almost half the respondents -- 47 percent -- were
“not at all satisfied” or only “slightly
satisfied” with the program. Only 14 percent were “very
satisfied or “completely satisfied.” Of those who used the
system in the past, 42 percent said they would not use it in 2012
because it was “too administratively burdensome or
Other problems included workers arriving long after they were needed
in the fields. “The current program won’t work for
blueberries,” said blueberry grower Bill Braswell. “I
understand the average H-2A crew is 22 days late. Blueberries
can’t go more than three days before a large portion of the crop
is lost. A three-day delay would put most farmers in a position where
they could not catch up, and most of the crop would be culled,”
In addition, survey respondents said, costly litigation often was
necessary to submit an appeal when applications for H-2A workers were
denied, usually because of minor errors or inconsistencies in their
The H-2A program was so unsatisfactory that 54 percent of those
surveyed had taken the notable step of complaining to their senator or
representative about it.
And things could get worse
is a job killer,” said Mike Carlton, FFVA’s director, labor
relations. “Hopefully it won’t pass after our federal
lawmakers see what happens at the state level. Look at what happened in
Georgia if you want to learn what will happen in the rest of the
The Wall Street Journal
reported that within weeks of the law being adopted,
“farmers reported a shortfall of 11,000 workers, affecting
perishable fruit and vegetable producers most of all, according to a
survey by Georgia’s agriculture department.”
A study by the University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness and
Economic Development showed that the estimated cost to the state’s
overall economy will be $391 million this year, including the loss of
3,260 full-time jobs in food production and related businesses. USDA
estimates that for every on-farm job another three
“downstream” jobs are created.
Legislation in the works
counter the effects E-Verify would have on agriculture, several
alternatives are being offered. U.S. Rep. Dan Lundgren, R-Calif., has
said he will propose a new visa category – the “W”
immigrant visa for ag workers – that would be a market-based
guest-worker program. Employers would tell USDA how many workers they
would need each month and yearly. USDA would establish an enrollment
process for growers in need of workers and advise the Department of
Homeland Security how many visas were needed. Once a worker was admitted
to the country, he or she would not be geographically limited, but agree
to only work for employers enrolled in the program.
The sponsor of E-Verify in the House, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, also
proposed a measure that would take into account agriculture’s
unique needs. He recently introduced the American Specialty Agriculture
Act that would replace the H-2A visa with a new H-2C visa. Under
Smith’s plan, up to half a million foreign farm workers each year
could receive the new visa.
“Unlike the H-2A, the “W” visa would not limit
workers to one employer,” Carlton said. “That would hurt
stability. And the H-2C idea would limit agricultural production by
imposing that 500,000 cap on eligible workers. I think a combination of
the best of the two bills would be advantageous for agriculture. But
Congress might have trouble passing two guest worker programs in this
political climate. That’s unfortunate because that optimal
combination is what we need.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also has said she will file a
revised version of AgJobs legislation that would call for creating a
five-year agriculture guest worker program.
Efforts to get the word out
America’s Food and Economy (SAFE) is a national initiative created
to support America’s need for a stable and legal farm work force,
as well as greater food security, independence over our food supply, and
keeping jobs and economic activity in the United States.
The group offers solutions for the right market-based type of
legislation needed to achieve those goals on its website,
SaveAmericasFood.org. SAFE was launched by the American Coalition of
Immigration Reform, to which FFVA belongs. Mike Carlton, FFVA's director
of labor relations, serves on ACIR's executive committee.
SAFE addresses the need to recognize in any federal E-Verify
legislation the critical role skilled farmworkers play.
“Let’s be smart and design a true solution: a coordinated
agricultural worker program that provides skilled farmworkers with an
agricultural visa, and a better system for future workers. Preserve our
farm communities, help our national economic recovery, and keep our food
produced by skilled farm workers we can trust,” the website
Go to SaveAmericasFood.org and join the effort to preserve our farms,
help our economy and keep our food grown right here at home. SAFE held a
media awareness day Oct. 27. Here in Florida, growers and industry
representatives met with editorial writers at the Tampa Tribune to
explain the consequences of mandatory E-Verify on agriculture without an
accompanying guest-worker program for farmworkers. The group explained
that without a workable solution that would allow growers to legally
hire foreign-born workers to plant and harvest crops, agriculture and
rural communities would be decimated. They also outlined agriculture's
ongoing efforts to work with legislators on a solution.
Producers want to do the right thing, and they want to have access to
an adequate workforce to continue feeding America.
“We need a cleaner, simpler guest worker program that would
allow workers to participate in the program and allow us the ability to
hire and retain workers who have experience in the industry and have
developed valuable skills,” said Reggie Brown.
Added Braswell, “The guest worker program we have now, H-2A,
can never be fixed in its current overall form to work for blueberries.
Our crop and crop window are not conducive to this type of
Further information and updates are provided by the National Council
of Agricultural Employers as well as by FFVA in its member newsletter,
the FFVA Voice. Those affected by potential E-Verify legislation are
urged to sign up on SAFE’s website. The site offers easy tools for
people to let their lawmakers know that only a market-based, streamlined
guest-worker program will continue to allow our country to produce the
variety, quality and quantity of food it demands as well as keep
communities and jobs intact.