Congress Fails on Agricultural Workers

A Failing Congress

 Editor’s Note: This letter was submitted by Manuel Cunha Jr. He is President of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League.

Every day, thousands of people wake up before the sun rises, pack their lunches, and drive or carpool their way to work. Some toil underneath the hot sun, while others are inside feverishly packing perishable items to make sure they make their cross country or ocean voyage in time. Six days a week they repeat this routine and how are they rewarded? With the fear that they will not be able to continue this routine.

These are OUR agricultural workers. Who provide us with the safest food that we, our representatives in Washington D.C., and officials in the White House buy at our stores, farmer’s markets, and restaurants.

These workers have children, many born in the U.S., that they must figure out who is going to take them to and from school, practice for sports and other activities, or who is going to care for their child while they’re at work. The same thing that any U.S. citizen parent must figure out.

They pay taxes and Social Security deductions, the latter which they will receive no benefit from.

They are the backbone of an industry where, in California alone, farmers sold almost $50 billion worth of food in 2013. Yet, between 2002 and 2014, the number of field and crop workers in the state declined by about 85,000, leading to a drop in the number of entry-level workers available for difficult jobs like hoeing, harvesting, and planting. While technology is often touted as a cure for every economic ailment, when it comes to delivering California’s crops to the nation’s kitchen tables, there is no app for that. Instead, we need skilled farmworkers, along with smart land and water use, to maintain our agriculture rich history.

On October 2, 2017, Congressman Goodlatte introduced H.R. 4092, it provides a pathway for our undocumented agricultural workers to obtain an agricultural work visa (H-2C visa). It also provides for a system, instead of our broken H-2A program, to bring in more agricultural workers into the U.S. to make up for our shortfall. By October 25, 2017, the bill had been amended to the detriment of our current agricultural workers. There are many flaws with the legislation, especially the deduction of 10% from these worker’s wages which was to be put in a trust account. The purpose of this is to provide “a monetary incentive for H-2C workers to return to their country of origin upon expiration of their visas.” To receive the money that they already earned, they must apply and establish that they have complied with the terms and conditions of the H-2C program. They then have return to their home country to obtain the payment.

Did we not learn anything from the Bracero Program, implemented between 1942 to 1964, that also withheld 10% of the worker’s wages as an incentive to return to Mexico? They never received those wages, and the workers of the proposed legislation may have received the same fate.

The inability by Congress to provide legislation for our undocumented agricultural workers living in the U.S. and a workable guest worker program has led to more members in my industry clamoring for more H-2A workers. This is a betrayal to the hardworking men and women who work for them.

Some have been living and working here for over 25 years, hoping that Congress passes legislation similar to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 – the last time Congress passed meaningful immigration legislation for our undocumented agricultural workers. Instead of meaningful legislation, some want to give them pink slips. These are skilled, hardworking people that are vital members of our communities and some want to toss them aside. What will become of them, their children, our communities?

Not only has Congress failed to protect our undocumented agricultural workers, but they seek to punish them. Congressman Lamar Smith recently introduced H.R. 3711. The bill would make mandatory and permanent requirements relating to use of an electronic employment eligibility verification system, more commonly known as E-Verify. It is a federal program that allows businesses to check a new employee’s immigration status within a matter of seconds. It will replace the current system, where the new employee fills out Form I-9 and present documents that they are eligible to work along with an identity document. The employer must take the documents at face value.

This would decimate our agricultural workforce, along with the hospitality industry, and in California, the building industry. It won’t just effect businesses, but more importantly, it will hurt families. Families that go to our schools and churches.

It is time for Congress and for all the members in my industry to get behind some of the hardest working members in our society and provide them with legal status. These are the people who make America great!

Sincerely,

Manuel Cunha, Jr., President, Nisei Farmers League

1775 N. Fine Avenue, Fresno, CA 93727

559-287-5610 cell

559-251-8468

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LEGISLATIVE UPDATE: Williamson Act, Solar, Undocumented Workers and More…

AB 1905 (Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville) would allow farmers and ranchers who have registered their small livestock stockponds to also register them for small irrigation use. It will improve water users’ opportunities to develop economically viable and ecologically sustainable water supplies by allowing small livestock stockponds to also be registered for small irrigation use.

Current law allows water users to utilize a single facility (pond) for both small irrigation use and small domestic use, but does not allow utilization of a single facility for small irrigation use and a small livestock stockpond. This measure will be heard next week in the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee and is sponsored by Farm Bureau.

AB 2071 (Marc Levine, D-San Rafael) that would allow highly treated recycled water to be used to water livestock will be heard next week in the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee. It would require the Department of Public Health to approve the use of tertiary treated recycled water for pasture animals unless the department determines that it would harm public health.

Farm Bureau has been discussing the measure with the author’s office. Two measures that would repeal provisions of the $11.14 billion Safe, Clean, and Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act currently scheduled to go before California voters November 4th this year was heard in the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee this week.

SB 927 (Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres and Andy Vidak, R-Hanford) would authorize the issuance of $9.217 billion in general obligation bonds; $327 million for drought relief, $1 billion for groundwater protection, $2.64 billion for regional water projects and recycling, $2.25 billion for Delta sustainability and $3 billion continuously appropriated for water storage projects.

SB 1370 (Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton) would authorize the issuance of $6.26 billion in general obligation bonds to be continuously appropriated for water projects.

Farm Bureau is supportive of the water storage elements of both measures, but has not yet taken a formal position on either bill while working with the authors on anticipated amendments to address additional key elements necessary to move these bills forward in the legislative process and be successful with the voters in the General Election in November.

SB 1353 (Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber), which would repeal the January 1, 2016 sunset date on the 9 and 18-year Williamson Act contracts, was unanimously approved by the Senate Governance and Finance Committee. This law requires participating landowners to forego ten percent of their property tax relief in a direct payment back to the counties to help finance the program when the state reduces or eliminates its subvention payments.

The original measure, AB 1265, was a Farm Bureau-sponsored measure to provide counties with an alternative to exiting the land conservation program through mass nonrenewals of their contracts. The bill was approved on the committee’s consent calendar which bodes well for its ultimate passage. It should be noted that the shorter term contracts and the subsequent ten percent reduction in property tax relief are dependent on an annual finding by the county that it did not receive at least 50 percent of its foregone property tax revenue in the previous fiscal year from the state.

Thus, restoration of all or significant portion of the state’s Williamson Act subventions will automatically restore the full benefits of the program and the full term of the contracts.

AB 2241 (Susan Eggman, D-Stockton) that would provide a financial incentive for counties to implement the solar-use easement provisions of the Williamson Act was approved by the Assembly Local Government Committee 9 to 0.When rescinding a Williamson Act (WA) or Farmland Security Zone (FSZ) contract to replace it with a solar-use easement, a rescission fee is required equal to 6.25 percent of the fair market value of the property or a standard WA contract and 12.5 percent for the 20-year FSZ contract.

This Farm Bureau-sponsored measure set the fee at 10 percent for the standard and FSZ contracts and allows the counties to keep five percent. This law only applies to marginally productive or physically impaired land, restricted by a Williamson Act contract, when it is to be converted to a solar-use easement agreement for the sole purpose of siting large-scale solar facility. The intent of solar use easements was to provide an alternative mechanism for counties to exit a contract marginal land as well as provide statewide uniformity with respect to financial assurances for subsequent reclamation of the site. Farm Bureau believes that this measure would further encourage the use of solar-use easements on marginally productive or physically impaired land.

AB 1961 (Susan Eggman, D-Stockton) that intended to encourage counties to adopt Sustainable Farmland Strategies for their agriculturally zoned land ran into some rough sledding in the Assembly Local Government Committee but was eventually approved on vote of 5 to 2 with 2 abstentions. This Farm Bureau supported bill would require counties, by January 1, 2018, to map and inventory their agriculturally zoned land, describe the goals, strategies and related policies in their General Plans and ordinances intended to retain its agricultural zoned land and, where practical, mitigate for the loss of their agricultural land.

The California Building Industry Association (CBIA) and the California Association of Realtors vigorously opposed the measure and accused the bill of doing a number of things that it just does not do. For example, the CBIA said the bill was top down planning from the state when, in fact, the bill strongly maintains local control of all land use planning. The CBIA also alleged that proposed Sustainable Farmland Strategies constituted a zoning overlay which is patently untrue. The roll call on AB 1961 was as follows: Ayes: Bradford, Gordon, Levine, Mullin, and Rendon; Noes: Melendez, and Waldron; and Abstentions: Achadjian, and Alejo.

Assembly Member Eggman vowed to continue to work with the development community to address their concerns. The bill will next be heard in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

AB 1897 by Assembly Labor & Employment Committee Chairman Roger Hernandez (D -West Covina) is a California Labor Federation-sponsored bill that will impose joint liability on a “client employer” for the Labor Code violations of any “labor contractor”. Hernandez’ bill would impose joint liability for any situation where a host employer receives the labor or services of any contractor in the course of normal business.

AB 1897 is not specific to any particular industry and is very broad in scope. The bill is scheduled for hearing in Assembly Labor & Employment on April 23. Farm Bureau and a broad coalition of employer groups expect to oppose the bill.

AB 2104 (Luis Alejo, D-Salinas) directs the Employment Development Department and the Department of Food and Agriculture to convene a working group to consult with the U.S. government on the creation of a program to legalize undocumented workers permitting them to live and work in California.

Similar to legislation offered by Assembly Member V. Manual Perez in the 2011-2012 legislative session, Alejo’s bill would require the working group to issue a report to the Legislature and the Governor describing such a program, and directs the Governor to either request the federal government to create such a program or explain to the Legislature why he did not do so and make recommendations to the Legislature to create such a program for California. The bill has been referred to the Assembly Committee on Labor & Employment; no hearing has been scheduled.

AB 2416 (Mark Stone, D-Monterey Bay) revives wage lien legislation (AB 1164, Lowenthal, D-Long Beach) that failed in the last legislative session in the face of strong opposition by employer groups including Farm Bureau. The Stone bill would allow employees to record a wage lien on an employer’s real and personal property for wages, other compensation and penalties for wages an employee claims were unpaid. AB 2416 has been referred to the Assembly Labor & Employment Committee but no hearing has been scheduled. It is expected to draw strong opposition from employer groups, including Farm Bureau.

The Senate Agriculture Committee heard SB 835 (Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo) this week, which would prohibit CDFA from allowing medically important antibiotics to be used in California if they are out of compliance with recently adopted federal requirements. Late last year the Food and Drug Administration issued Guidance #213, which asks all pharmaceutical companies to re-label antibiotics that are medically important in human medicine to remove growth promotion from the label. Once the label changes are made it would be illegal for anyone to administer these antibiotics for growth promotion purposes.

The FDA gave the pharmaceutical companies until March to notify them of their compliance and all but one of the companies has stated their plans to comply. As part of this new system, FDA released a proposed rule creating a new Veterinary Feed Directive that would require veterinary oversight for all medically important antibiotics administered to animals through feed or water.

FDA has given a three year period for implementation of these new requirements. Farm Bureau has worked with Senator Hill’s office to ensure that all that his bill does is implement the federal guidance document and veterinary feed directive. Senator Hill took amendments at Farm Bureau and other livestock organizations’ request to prevent any unintended consequences on California’s livestock producers. With the amendments, Farm Bureau was able to remove its opposition and the bill passed out of the Committee with a vote of 5-0.

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