Tom Nassif: Ag Immigration Reform is Critical

All Fruits and Vegetables Harvested by Foreign Hands

By Cory Lunde, Western Growers Assoc. Director of Strategic Initiatives and Communications

Recently, Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif detailed the critical labor shortages facing American agriculture and laid out the case for agricultural immigration reform before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship.

In his testimony, Nassif stated that experienced workers are aging out of the agricultural workforce, with few Americans lining up to take their place, despite wages well above state and federal minimums. Farmers in all sectors of U.S. agriculture, especially in the labor-intensive fruit and vegetable industries, are experiencing chronic labor shortages, which have been exacerbated by recent interior immigration enforcement and tighter border security policies.

As a result of the uncertain agricultural labor market, Nassif explained, many American farmers are either shifting toward more mechanized crops or moving their operations to other countries.

“The simple fact is this,” Nassif said, “fruits and vegetables that are eaten in the United States will be harvested by foreign hands.”

He continued: “The simple question for you, as members of Congress, is do you want those foreign hands harvesting your fruits and vegetables to be on farms here in the United States or do you want to see production continue to shift to farms in foreign countries?”

After touching on the existing, flawed H-2A agricultural guest worker program, rife with burdensome regulatory red tape, Nassif outlined a two-pronged proposal for agricultural immigration reform that jointly provides a pathway to legalization for existing farmworkers and their immediate families and creates a more flexible, efficient and market-based agricultural worker visa program to ensure a sufficient future flow of labor.

Nassif concluded that while “immigration can be among the most divisive and difficult to resolve in Washington,” this issue is decidedly non-partisan, as agricultural immigration reform is really about securing the future of American agriculture and, by extension, long-term U.S. food security.

Western Growers appreciates the efforts of Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren and Ranking Member Ken Buck to elevate the dialogue around this vital issue, and we look forward to working across the aisle to advance bipartisan legislation that provides our country and farmers with a legal, stable and reliable source of agricultural labor.

Ag Leaders Discuss AB 1066 Consequences

Ag Leaders on AB 1066 Consequences

By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director and Brian German, Associate Broadcaster

California ag leaders hoped that Governor Brown would see how the AB 1066 overtime bill would actually hurt farmworkers and veto it. Now that the Governor has signed it, the following ag leaders weigh in on AB 1066 consequences: Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau; Bryan Van Groningen, field manager for Van Groningen & Sons Farms; and Anthony Raimondo, a Fresno-based attorney who has been representing farmers and farm labor contractors for over 15 years, among them.

Norm Groot

Norm Groot anticipated, “The end result of AB 1066 is a big move to mechanized harvesting, which probably means a change in some of the crops that we’re growing here simply because currently we can’t harvest lettuce or strawberries or some of the other vegetable crops by mechanized means. Lawmakers are forcing the hand of the growers to move into crops that are less labor intensive and thus, save the [labor] cost,” said Groot.

Groot noted the inaccurate AB 1066 assumption—that an increase in overtime hours and pay will result from its passage. “We will probably see their hours cut back to the eight hours a day and forty hours per week,” he explained, as stipulated in the law. “Growers will adjust their planning schedules to the amount of laborers that they think they have available for harvest. It’s not an automatic given that we’re going to see all these paychecks increase, simply because we’re putting overtime at more than eight hours a day or after forty hours a week,” Groot said.

Groot added that farmworkers are not in favor of losing 33% of their income at this point. “I think overall, the unions have been supportive of this particular change, but the unions do not represent the majority of the laborers or field workers at this point,” he said.

“I think if you were to ask the average field worker whether he wants to work ten hours a day and sixty hours a week, he would probably say yes. Field workers want that income. They know they work in a seasonal business; they have to earn their income when they can,” he explained.

Bryan Van Groningen

Bryan Van Groningen
Bryan Van Groningen

“Our farmworkers, our employees, love to put in the extra hours because this is the time that they’re making wages. Our company is accustomed to paying overtime if that’s what it requires,” said Van Groningen, “and the majority of our workers are already satisfied with the existing compensation structure.”

But Van Groningen noted the problem lies in what is considered overtime. With a shorter workday, overtime compensation rates will kick in much earlier than in the past, which will end up being a tremendous cost to the employer. “That’s going to cause our farm to mechanize a little bit more to try to get through the harvest more bit quickly because [the cost] is going to become too big of a burden,” he said.

Growers want to help their employees as best they can, but Van Groningen predicts reduced hours may become a necessity. “It’s just smart business. We don’t want to cut hours, but if we’re forced to because our bottom line is starting to become an issue, that’s what we’ll have to seriously consider,” he said.

Anthony Raimondo
Anthony Raimondo

Anthony Raimondo

Anthony Raimondo foresaw the effects of AB 1066 could put California at a disadvantage in the global marketplace. “At the very least,” Raimondo said, “employers will be forced to evaluate where they can cut production costs.”

“The increased overtime in some industries is going to drive automation,” said Raimondo. “So you are going to lose jobs because now it’s worth it for people to do the research and development to have more automation, more machine-harvested crops and less labor.”

Raimondo also expects some employers to add more H-2A temporary agricultural guest workers to make sure hours stay low enough to prevent their costs from increasing. “In the end, this is really going to cost farmworkers in terms of their real wages and it creates a massive economic disadvantage for California’s agricultural industry,” he said.

Policies like AB 1066 become increasingly problematic as the global agricultural industry continues to become more competitive. “Increasingly, agriculture has become a global marketplace in which we compete against countries that do not maintain the same labor standards nor the same environmental standards that we maintain, so our agricultural industry continues to remain at an economic disadvantage with the rest of the world,” noted Raimondo.

Featured photo: Norm Groot, Monterey County Farm Bureau executive director

Western United Dairymen Calls on Congress to Address Farm Labor Crisis

Call to Address Farm Labor Crisis, along with E-Verify Legislation

Together with the Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC), Western United Dairymen (WUD) called on Congress TODAY to enact legislation that would address the farm labor crisis faced by American agriculture before implementing a mandatory E-Verify system.

The call came via the testimony of Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC), a member of the AWC, during a hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) called the hearing to examine The Legal Workforce Act (H.R. 1772), legislation introduced during the previous Congress.  The measure would mandate the use of the E-Verify system by employers to confirm the legal status of prospective employees.

“Mandatory E-Verify without addressing agriculture’s broader labor crisis would be devastating. As an industry, we recognize interior enforcement is needed; it just cannot be decoupled from addressing agriculture’s workforce concerns,” Conner testified. “Let me be very clear: the agricultural industry would be forced to oppose any E-Verify legislation that does not also address the agricultural workforce crisis.”

Conner noted that an estimated 70 percent of hired farm workers lack proper authorization to work in the United States, despite providing authentic-looking documents to employers. In addition, the only guest worker program available to agriculture, H-2A, is so cumbersome and divorced from the market-based needs of agriculture, that it provides just 7 percent of the workers needed by farmers and ranchers.

The vast majority of America’s farmers fully comply with the law. But the system created by Congress in 1986 is vulnerable to the use of false documents. “Employers, including farmers, are not experts in spotting false documents,” Conner said. “So long as a solution is in place to ensure access to a legal and stable workforce, including our current, experienced workersboth year-round and seasonalfarmers would welcome a verification system that is simple, efficient and certain.”

WUD is a voluntary membership organization representing more than 60% of the milk produced in California. Membership benefits include resources in labor law, environmental regulations and pricing issues. Members decide the direction of state and federal legislative efforts affecting the dairy industry.

The Agriculture Workforce Coalition (AWC) unites over 70 organizations representing the diverse needs of agricultural employers across the country. AWC serves as the unified voice of agriculture in the effort to ensure that Americas farmers, ranchers and growers have access to a stable and secure workforce. Western United Dairymen is a key member of the AWC steering committee.

Fresh Harvesting and Packing Co Relies on H-2A Workers

Steve Scaroni is a owner of Valley Harvesting and Packing, a major harvester of strawberries and leafy green vegetables in California and Arizona. At a recent romaine lettuce harvest operation in Salinas, Scaroni talked about how much labor and equipment his production utilizes.

Scaroni said much of his labor comes from Mexico, as part of the federal H-program, which allows temporary visas for agricultural labor workers.

“The H-2A is so important. We absolutely could not produce at the levels of volume that we do without H-2A labor. There is not enough legal labor for us to do the amount of volume that we are asked to do by our customers.”

Scaroni explains that having the H-2A visa program is essential to his produce production and harvesting, even for company that is not seen by the consumer.

“Between the different brands that we probably serve, we probably touch 20 percent of every salad eaten in america everyday. But you don’t see our name anywhere, you don’t hear about us, we are a vendor behind the scenes for the major brands,” said Scaroni.

With the demand and need for guaranteed freshness in produce, a constant flow of workers is even more crucial to the harvesting and production process.

“But we are the ones putting up the harvester equipment and we are making sure we have enough labor. The whole process is now “just in time”. See that’s the other thing, now we have freshness, food safety, but you know we have to have a consistent workforce because we are on just in time deliveries because that’s what the grocery store requires. It comes all the way come back to us.”

Scaroni explains the process by which his company obtains out of state workers, legally and those with good work ethic.

“We’re fortunate that we have what have a farming operation in Mexico, so we vet a lot of our workers that we bring up here. we vet them first in our operation in Guanajuato Mexico. And then the good ones we give them the opportunity to come up here to work two to three to four to five to six  months, making more in an hour than they can make in a day in Mexico.” said Scaroni.

Scaroni noted that there must be approvals from five different government agencies to get that worker out of Mexico and here working in California, legally with a H-2A visa.

“I have a great H-2A team, all they focus on is H-2A, the process, getting the workers up here, going to the consulate to do the intake process. Every worker is background checked, fingerprinted, and if they have any criminal history in the system, they’re excluded and cut off the border, and they can’t come.”

Scaroni said the job wouldn’t get done without them.

“In today’s labor reality I would not have a business at the volume that my customers bless us with. We would be at half of what we are, We’d be half the business we are now.” Scaroni added.