Sep 7, 2020
Pleas to Congress don’t connect; action needed

On March 13, 2020, President Trump declared a national emergency to combat the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. The following week, I was invited by one of our members to join a conference call between farmers and a state’s Congressional delegation, including both U.S. senators. The topic of the meeting was agricultural labor during the pandemic.

It was interesting to hear the delegation’s take. It was far more interesting to hear the farmers’ view.

One of the senators announced to the group that farmers at last would be free from having to utilize the H-2A program for temporary agricultural workers. No longer would we need these foreigners working our fields. He posited that with the huge numbers of recently unemployed individuals within the state, there would likely be an army of workers clamoring to come out and work on the farm. He also suggested that with so many workers looking for jobs, the farmers would be able to cherry pick the absolute best.

One of the farmers on the call pushed back on the senator’s claim.

“The president says this whole thing is going to go away by summer. When that happens and these unemployed people I’ve hired onto the farm decide they’re going back to their old jobs, what am I going to do to fill those spots?” the grower asked. “Who’s going to help me during harvest?”

The senator stammered for a few seconds appearing to try to come up with a response, then suddenly said he needed to run. He thanked the group for their time and their support. Then, he was gone.

One of the House members chimed in and suggested the grower need not worry because he was working on a new proposal. His championed idea would open the state’s prisons to early release if the prisoners released would agree to work on farms. Another aspect of his proposal was that the farmer would only be required to pay the federal minimum wage for the furloughed prison labor. Nothing more.

He further asserted this plan would make sure the inmates would stay through harvest. Problem solved!

One of the farmers on the call asked to be recognized. The farmer inquired of the congressman how his hire of these prisoners would fit within his food safety protocols on the farm?


Then he followed up with a second concern and asked, “Will the state guarantee that my wife and kids will be safe from these people your plan would bring onto my place?”

The congressman noted those were good questions he hadn’t considered. He then apologized that he had another call to get to and thanked the group on the phone for their support. Then, he was gone.

I chose to share this story to illustrate the disconnect that unfortunately exists between politicians’ notions, and the reality faced in the field.

In the past several months, we have seen two pieces of legislation proposed. One of the bills authored by conservative members of the Senate would do away with all temporary foreign worker programs in the United States. This bill exempts the H-2A program from suspension.

Several members of the House Freedom Caucus proposed the same thing but included cessation of the H-2A program as well.

Both proposals are based on the same false premise. They seek to advance the notion that with U.S. unemployment at record levels, there are more than enough workers available to do farm work.

The National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE) requested all 50 State Workforce Agencies (SWA) provide us with the total number of agricultural work referrals they had made for the tens of thousands of open positions this spring. We also asked the SWAs to provide us with the same information for the prior year when U.S. unemployment was at a record low.

We are still receiving responses but have heard from 23 states so far. The members of Congress who sponsored the legislation may be stunned.

Total referrals of domestic workers reported by these 23 states in 2020 declined by 22% over the same period last year. This occurred as total U.S. unemployment was at its highest level in U.S. history. NCAE will share results with the Congress.

This situation highlights the critical need for farmers and ranchers to engage with political leaders and get them out of Washington, D.C., and into our fields, orchards, barns and pastures. What might seem simple, is not. We need to connect this disconnect and must all do our part.

Michael Marsh, president & CEO, National Council of Agricultural Employers

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