Ag labor

A cow waits for its breakfast in October in Filer. A new farm bill would give farmers greater access to legal labor, while also giving existing foreign-born workers a path to legal status.

TWIN FALLS — Idaho dairies rely almost exclusively on foreign-born labor since few domestic workers are willing to take jobs in agriculture. But dairy farmers aren’t eligible to hire through one of the few available legal avenues, and, to stay in business, they must rely on workers with ambiguous legal status.

The system creates high turnover costs and a general sense of uncertainty for dairy farmers, said Willie Bokma, who owns a dairy in Twin Falls County.

“We have a stressful enough life as farmers and especially as dairy farmers,” Bokma said. “We can’t afford to have an irregular workforce.”

There’s hope, though, that this could change. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019 would provide a path to legal status for unauthorized agricultural workers already working in the U.S. and reform a guest worker program to allow more employers to hire more workers legally.

After more than a decade of work, the bill recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives with bipartisan support, including a push from Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who cosponsored the bill.

“We need to solve this problem,” Simpson said. “This may be the most important bill affecting agriculture that’s passed in the House in the last 20 years.”

The bill still awaits an uncertain Senate vote, but it’s path so far is already a rare instance of bipartisan agreement on immigration.

Decades of labor difficulties

In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, providing amnesty for more than 1.1 million farmworkers and imposing the first federal sanctions on employers who knowingly hired unauthorized workers.

But the Immigration Reform and Control Act didn’t offer farmers a system to hire foreign labor. Many agricultural workers who gained amnesty soon left agriculture and were replaced by undocumented workers.

Unauthorized workers now make up about half of the 1.8 million workers in agriculture. That number has held steady for nearly three decades, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Policy changes and several other factors have slowed Mexico-U.S. migration in the past decade. That, plus low unemployment for domestic workers, has led to an aging and depleted agriculture workforce. And with a crackdown on illegal workers by President Donald Trump threatening those who remain, farmers are left scrambling for a solution.

The farm bill moving through Congress would allow those who have worked in agriculture for six months to receive five-year renewable visas for as long as they remain in agriculture. It would also create a voluntary option to earn lawful permanent resident status if the worker pays a $1,000 fine, and works either four and eight more years in agriculture, depending on their work experience.

Simpson said that provision is intended to create a gradual process for legalization that would allow farmers to hire new workers to replace those who will likely leave agriculture after a few years.

Those who are supporting major industry should be able to participate in society without fear of being waylaid while traveling to see family, he said.

Bokma said these changes are necessary for ensuring a future workforce and creating a moral living condition for workers.

“We would like to maintain a stable workforce,” he said, “and we would also like to make sure they’re properly taken care of.”

The need for year-round help

In addition to gradual legalization, the bill attempts to side-step the consequences of amnesty given in 1986 by updating a temporary guest worker visa program, known as H-2A, that offers a legal avenue to hire labor.

There were about 242,762 certified H-2A workers in 2018, nearly triple the number since 2012, according to the Department of Labor. The program makes up about 10% of the agriculture workforce.

But the program has more than 200 requirements for employers and workers, and a request for job approval requires three separate submissions to three separate federal agencies. Farmers have long complained that the program is overly burdensome and bureaucratic, and creates high compliance costs that lower productivity.

Officials say the farm bill would streamline the application process. There would be one online form, and workers would only have to apply once every three years, instead of annually. It would also eliminate other restrictions, such as a requirement to run job postings in the newspaper.

The bill would address the H-2A minimum wage, known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, which attempts to ensure foreign laborers aren’t so inexpensive that they deprive domestic workers of jobs. But wages are significantly higher than minimum wage (Idaho’s AEWR was nearly double minimum wage in 2019), and annual wage increases fluctuate between 1% and 6%, making budgets unstable for employers.

Wage increases would be capped at 3.25% for 10 years

The bill would also increase the amount of affordable housing and transportation available to workers.

Farmers with year-round operations, mostly animal farmers, are not eligible to hire under the current H-2A system. While the animal farming industry makes up about 31% of farm employment, it only receives about 4% of H-2A jobs, and those jobs are for exemptions in sheep and goat herding that could be eliminated in 2020.

The dairy industry wants access to more year-round workers. Idaho’s dairy industry, the third largest in America, has had difficulty finding labor.

The only caveat is that there still might not be enough visas. The current version of the bill caps the number of year-round visas at 20,000 per year, and dedicates 10,000 of those to dairies. If dairy farmers use all 30,000 of those visas for the first three years, then the numbers can increase by 12.5%.

The bill had bipartisan support in the House, and more than 300 agricultural groups representing both farmers and workers signed-on in support. It’s widely been labeled a compromise.

Simpson said the bill goes a long way toward finding a solution, but there are parts that would have been different had Republicans held the House. Republicans and employers specifically did not want to cap H-2A visas for year-round workers at 20,000, he said.

Workers groups have pushed against using the H-2A at all. Ramos Torres is the president of Familias Unidas, a Washington state agriculture workers group that opposed the bill. In a statement, he said the H-2A program contributes to the exploitation of workers.

He also said implementation of the E-Verify system to track legal status of workers — an important piece for conservatives — was a “non-starter,” and added that it could make it easier for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to raid work sites and monitor workers.