House Ag Committee tries to tackle worsening labor challenges 

U.S. Capitol Building dome in Washington DC.(Photo by Kristen Labadie, University Communication and Marketing.)

From row crop operations to dairies, finding good workers is a problem facing thousands of farmers across the country and the challenge continues to worsen. At least that’s the consensus from a bipartisan working group formed by the House Agriculture Committee and co-chaired by Rick Crawford, R-AR, and Don Davis, D-NC. 

“2023 has marked a high-point for domestic agricultural labor shortages; a situation which has been made more dire due to the increase in the regulatory cost burden of utilizing H-2A labor on the farm,” the group noted in its interim report. 

The challenges associated with finding good help on the farm is not a new issue. For example, as far back as 2012, the North Carolina Growers Association sought to fill 7,008 jobs through the H-2A program. Only 143 domestic workers applied for and actually showed up for the jobs, and only 10 completed the growing season. 

But repeated attempts by Congress to address the issue have not been successful. Farm groups’ best opportunity in recent years of enacting farm labor reform ended in December when the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, passed twice by a Democratic-controlled House, died in the Senate at the end of the last Congress. 

Committee Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-PA, acknowledged his committee lacks the jurisdiction to advance legislation that would modify the H-2A program because immigration policy is under the purview of the Judiciary Committee. However, the working group will have members of Judiciary as well as Ways and Means, which handles trade and tariff policy. 

Crawford said the goal is to produce recommendations for legislation that can pass the House. 

“Consensus is going to be difficult, and that’s why I think we have to start with a real broad scope on what the problems are, and how they affect each individual geography, and then what are the commonalities that can be fixed,” he said when announcing the working group. 

The group conducted a survey with 820 responses and held five roundtable discussions to gather input from farmers, ag groups, policy experts, farm workers and labor advocates. The majority of those surveyed said it was “very difficult to find and retain employees” and expressed concerns about the lack of domestic employees willing to work on farms. 

“It is becoming clear that our agricultural visa policies are in desperate need of reforms,” Crawford said. 

Currently, there are about 1.2 million full-time equivalents for on-farm employment. Seventy percent are foreign born, and approximately 50% are working in undocumented status. Given this reality, the report notes that “it is not surprising that there has been exponential growth in the H-2A program.” 

The Department of Labor certified over 371,000 positions in 2022, up from about 48,000 certified positions in 2005. The top states for utilizing the H-2A program in 2022 were Florida, California, Georgia, Washington, North Carolina, Michigan, Louisiana, Arizona, Texas, and New York. 

The survey included a question asking farmers to prioritize possible changes to labor programs. Some 240 out of 356 responses to that question mentioned wages or costs. 

A delay in getting H-2A workers on farms was a significant concern as well. Some 26% of surveyed farmers said workers had arrived two weeks to a month late, while 11% of those surveyed said workers arrived more than 30 days late. Another 27% said workers got to the operation six to 13 days late. 

Just under one-third—32%—of surveyed farmers who don’t use H-2A workers said they don’t do so because of the complexity of complying with regulations. Another 22% say their operations aren’t eligible for the program. Some 20% say it’s too expensive. Only 9% said they have an adequate supply of domestic labor. 

“We must ensure there is a viable, affordable, and easy-to-use alternative to the lack of a domestic workforce, which is undoubtedly found with the H-2A program,” the report says. 

The report noted “labor leaders are particularly concerned about H-2A recruitment practices. Because of the structure of the program, which requires employers to provide transportation, housing, and food in some instances, workers coming into the U.S. through the H-2A visa program often feel bound to their employers. 

The working group survey gathered responses from some ag workers. Asked whether H-2A worker protections were adequate, 68 respondents said yes and 41 said no. Asked whether H-2A and domestic workers have similar legal protections, 70 respondents said yes and 48 said no. 

The roundtables also included one focused on sectors currently excluded from H-2A, including meat processors and dairy operations. 

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Access to a stable, reliable workforce is the most pressing day-to-day challenge facing the processing industry, which includes cattle, poultry, pork, sheep, and types of aquaculture. This was the case before the COVID–19 pandemic, and it remains an acute challenge. 

Members of the group will meet “over the next several months” to talk about “potential legislative solutions to the issues identified in the interim report,” according to a release. 

Other members of the working group include Republicans Lori Chavez-DeRemer of Oregon, Monica De La Cruz of Texas, Doug LaMalfa of California, Nicholas Langworthy of New York, David Rouzer of North Carolina and Derrick Van Orden of Wisconsin. The other Democratic members are Yadira Caraveo of Colorado, Salud Carbajal of California, Jim Costa of California, Jasmine Crockett of Texas, Darren Soto of Florida and Gabe Vasquez of New Mexico. Thompson and ranking member David Scott, D-GA, are ex-officio members. 

Editor’s note: Sara Wyant is publisher of Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc., www.Agri-Pulse.