Jan 9, 2023
H-2A, ag labor reform efforts die in Congress

A push by ag and business groups to pass immigration and labor reforms failed in late December, despite 11th-hour maneuvering to attach it to a massive omnibus bill.

Legislators approved an omnibus appropriations bill that doesn’t address any of the H-2A wage reform, labor availability and other workforce issues sought by fruit and vegetable growers.

The Senate and House Appropriations Committees on Dec. 20 released the text of the omnibus bill, which is more than 4,000 pages, but does not include the agriculture labor measures sought by the specialty crop industry.

Robert Guenther

“Congress has once again failed to deliver the reforms that the fresh produce industry and its agricultural allies have long fought for,” Robert Guenther, chief policy officer of the International Fresh Produce Association, said in a statement from the association. “IFPA did its part to reach an agreement with advocates for our workers and garnered bipartisan support for compromise legislation.”

IFPA and hundreds of other agricultural organizations supported the Affordable and Secure Food Act, introduced by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., on Dec. 15. It featured many measures included in the House version of ag labor reform, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which passed with strong bipartisan support in 2019 and 2021.

Sen. Michael Bennett

Bennet introduced the bill without the support of Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, who had been working with Bennet for more than a year on the legislation. The Senate’s Affordable and Secure Food Act was a long shot. The bill needed 60 Senate votes, and without a single Republican supporter, its only hope for passage as the lame-duck session wound down was inclusion in the omnibus bill, which funds critical government operations at federal agencies in 2023.

Chris Butts

Chris Butts, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, said Georgia growers see this as another failed attempt to provide “common-sense reform to a broken ag labor system.

“Our growers are staring down the barrel of a 14% wage increase in 2023 that will cost Georgia producers well over $100 million in 2023 alone,” Butts said in a statement. “We are at the intersection of bad labor and bad trade policies that threaten the very future of our industry in Georgia. These failed policies will result in economic loss to Georgia and will only increase our nation’s reliance on foreign suppliers for our food.”

Jim Bair, president and CEO of U.S. Apple, said that senators left unfinished business.

“The House twice passed bipartisan legislation to reform our broken agriculture labor system and the Senate failed to act. A good bill passed the House, and a better one was introduced in the Senate,” Bair said in a statement. “To get right up to the finish line – but not cross it – is a bitter pill to swallow when the bill would have improved the ag workforce picture by every measure.”

Apple growers across the country are now left to “fend for themselves” as input and H-2A labor rates increase and inputs are more. USApple will continue to seek reform.

“We hope that (legislators) find it in themselves to roll up their sleeves, get to work and find a solution. Apple growers do this every day,” he said in the statement. “They are making tough decisions to determine if they can continue producing America’s favorite fruit for another year, or if what has been a livelihood for three, four or more generations stops with this one.”

Western Growers president and CEO Dave Puglia said the Senate missed another opportunity to resolve the farm labor and food production crisis facing the country.

Dave Puglia

“Since 2015, our dependence on imported fruits and vegetables has increased by more than 50% and is on track to exceed another 12% this year,” Puglia said in the statement. “Without a stable, legal agricultural workforce, our nation will become increasingly dependent on imported food.”
IFPA expressed “extreme disappointment” that the omnibus bill failed to include the reforms.

“Congress missed a huge opportunity and did not do their part to improve production and increase the legal supply of labor,” Guenther said in the statement. “Because of this inaction, consumers will continue to see record prices at the grocery store, producers will continue to face unaffordable, unpredictable input costs from out-of-control wage hikes, and we will continue down the path to being a nation that is increasingly food insecure. We implore the Senate to not walk away from this effort before they adjourn.”

Bennet made a last-ditch effort on Dec. 19 on the Senate floor.

“Today, America’s farmers and ranchers are short more than 100,000 workers – all across this country – to plant seeds, to pick berries, to raise cattle, and do the hard, essential work of feeding this country,” Bennet said. “It’s why growers all across America are banging down the doors of this Capitol, pleading with us to fix the broken H-2A system for farm workers. It is obvious to everybody – who’s had anything to do with this system – that it’s completely broken. There is no argument that could be made that it’s not.”

It’s unknown when Congress will even discuss the issue again, but it’s likely it will be years. Diane Kurrle, senior vice president of the U.S. Apple Association, told attendees of the annual apple luncheon during the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO on Dec. 6 that House Republican leaders after the November mid-term elections said “they’ll not touch a bill like this while they’re in control” of the chamber.

“I don’t say this with any sort of partisan intent, but that message comes to us from Republican leaders who have been strong supporters, who voted for the bipartisan bill in the House,” Kurrle said during the luncheon.
Thirty Republican House members voted for the Farm Workforce Modernization Act in 2021.

– Chris Koger, managing editor




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