For use in local newspapers, week of March 30, 2014:
If there is a common thread that runs through the migrant labor debate it’s that there aren’t enough workers to do the jobs Americans won’t.
At the Louisiana Farm Bureau’s Mid-South Ag Labor Seminar, held last week in Port Allen, about 200 farmers were told by labor experts from across the country that little is likely to change if the federal government doesn’t increase the number of immigrant workers it allows into the country each year. The 66,000 approved H2B visas needs to be increased if many service-industry businesses are to survive. Similar action needs to be taken for agricultural workers under the H2A program. H2B workers are those traditionally employed by hotels, construction and the food service industry, while H2A oversees migrant farm workers.
Brian Breaux, a labor specialist for the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation, told farmers the need for H2A workers here in the state is increasing. He said farmers struggle year after year to get the necessary workers to plant and harvest crops, transport crops to market and to work in the processing areas of Louisiana agriculture.
“Louisiana agriculture has the highest percentage of H2A visa workers in the U.S. when it comes to the percentage of the agricultural workforce,” Breaux said. There are 12,483 people working in the state’s farming, fishing and forestry industries. Of that, 7,409 of those employees are here under the H2A program. And I have farmers tell me everyday they have trouble securing reliable labor for their operations.”
While Louisiana ranks fourth in the nation for the number of H2A workers, the lion’s share of the farm labor force, 59 percent, is made up of migrant workers mostly from Mexico. North Carolina has the highest number of H2A workers with 12,386 according to 2013 U.S. Department of Labor statistics.
Several measures have been put forth in Congress to increase the number of guest workers allowed in the U.S. Draft H2B legislation proposed by Rep. Andy Harris, R-Maryland, would exempt returning H2B workers from the 66,000-worker cap. Supporters say returning workers have integrated themselves into the U.S. workforce and usually return to the same seasonal jobs year in, year out.
“Many businesses in Louisiana work the same (migrant) employees year to year, yet every year their (application) paperwork has to be completed as if it’s the first time these workers are showing up,” Breaux continued. “Exempting these workers from the 66,000 cap would open up the market, allowing more employer and worker needs to be met.”
Dan Bremer, of AgWorks, a Lake Park, Ga. labor advisor and consultant, told farmers despite the limitations on H2A farm workers, protecting themselves and their workers goes a long way to maintaining the current ag labor force.
“Make sure you and your farm are compliant with all federal labor regulations,” Bremer said. “Know the rules and keep proper records. And carefully review your labor contracts, particularly if you’re using a third party to secure your workers. And make sure the workers understand what’s expected of them and what they can expect from you. Until the situation in Washington improves the best thing you can do is exercise due diligence on behalf of your farm and your workers.”
Bremer also suggested farmers continue to advertise for local workers each season to maintain compliance with all state and federal laws regarding H2A. He said despite a shortage of local workers willing to work on U.S. farms and ranches, the policy and programs must give local workers the “right of first refusal.”
“I know many of you think it’s an exercise in futility to advertise for local workers,” Bremer continued. “Many of you have told me you fail to get any local responses whatsoever. But that shouldn’t keep you from following the letter of the law. We all know that no American wants to do farm labor and without migrant workers we don’t work.
“The real issue is what you did in good faith to secure those workers from Mexico that the federal folks are going to be looking at if they ever show up on your farm,” Bremer continued. “And believe me, they will show up sooner or later.”