Guest worker Legislation
Progress has been made on guest worker legislation but we are still far from crossing the finish line. While California interests remain united, the greater produce industry is splintered on the H2A components. There are other interests “in the room” as well including the dairy sector, American Farm Bureau, and other state and national Ag sectors with “skin in the game.” Representing California in D.C. on this issue is Western Growers.
The CCM Board, in conjunction with the other California associations at play, has endorsed a set of principles for guest worker legislation. They are, in no particular order:
- The existing labor force will have a designated timeframe to become legal residents without vulnerability to themselves or immediate family members as they apply;
- There is portability so that an employee can be employed by more than one employer during a calendar year;
- There will be a requirement to continue to work in agriculture for a defined period of time which is dependent upon their length of service year-to-date. Once the defined period has passed they can apply to become residents, and;
- E-Verify does not become effective until the guest worker program is fully implemented.
A breakdown in the produce industry could occur over proposed modifications to the existing H2A program that deal with wage calculations. There is a formula, acronym being AEWR, that calculates wage rates for each state. Last year, several states were mandated to increase hourly wages significantly. This has since been recognized as a flaw in the AEWR formula. How to fix this flaw is the center for debate between interested parties including UFW. Three major proposals are on the table that would either increase wages by up to 3.5% or have an effect of reducing wages by up to 1.5% per annum. The UFW is seeking an immediate automatic 115% increase above the state minimum wage at the outset of the law’s implementation. Some agriculture sectors are seeking a rollback of hourly wages because of the increase absorbed 2018/19. CCM doesn’t believe a wage rollback is a positive “ask.”
CCM is seeking a discussion regarding a tax credit for those employers that provide housing for H2A workers. We also believe that the H2A program has to be tied to guest worker legislation for operational and political purposes. Unless and until the guest worker component can be fully implemented, which we believe to be the most valuable piece of legislation. there needs to be the certainty of a viable labor force through an H2A program. It is expensive, but it does provide certainty for employers. Once the guest worker program is functioning applicants will increase and potential employee numbers will grow.
If and when the House takes action the process will begin anew in the Senate. Senator Feinstein has pledged her support and team to make something happen that is positive for our California agriculture.
Domestic Trade Disparity
Meanwhile, additional discussions are being scheduled for a domestic trade disparity resolution/solution. Colleagues in the Southeast, Florida, Georgia & South Carolina have proposed “Seasonal and Perishable” amendments to existing legislation and more specifically to the proposed USMCA trade agreement. The strategy is being challenged in some circles, but the justification for action has been recognized by the Administration. In his testimony before the Ways & Means Committee, the Trade Ambassador recognized that there is a problem for fresh produce items that existing rules do not address, signaling that the Administration is open to working with stakeholders to develop solutions. CCM, Sunkist, and Wonderful Citrus representatives are coordinating D.C. activities with colleagues in Texas and Florida.
Farm Bill Research Funding
Those two issues are CCM’s major priorities in Washington at this time, however, one irritant did emerge after the Farm Bill was signed. In the previous Farm Bill, the three Citrus Mutuals worked to secure a research program specific to HLB that was funded at $25 million each year for five years. Sustaining that program in the 2018 Farm Bill was a bit of challenge but nevertheless, success was achieved. But, unbeknownst to the three state leaders and to House Ag Committee staff and committee members, language was inserted that requires 100% matching funds for research dollars. Not nice, right? The requirement applies to all research programs, not only citrus, and a coalition has been created to pass corrective language.