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Farm labor shortages, Bills that negatively impact farm labor employers

California Farm Labor Shortage

By —— Bio and Archives--September 4, 2012

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Growers throughout California report that the farm labor shortages and the introduction of bills that negatively impact farm labor employers is the worst it has ever been. Overall, growers are reporting a 20 percent drop in farm workers this year. The lack of workers means that crops are not getting harvested this season.  Many crops are being disked under or just left in the fields to rot.

An analysis by the American Farm Bureau Federation projects annual crop production losses nationally between $5 billion and $9 billion. To make matters worse, state legislators are pursuing legislation that further restricts and penalizes farm labor employers, potentially costing hundreds of farm labor jobs and ultimately adding to the cost of food to the consumer.

Why is the farm labor shortage so bad in 2012?

The current Temporary Agricultural Guest Worker program, H-2A, does not provide enough of a labor force to meet the needs of the average California farm.  Add to that heightened border enforcement and barriers to housing and transportation. As a result, fewer workers from Mexico and other Latin American countries are crossing the California border. All of these factors contribute to farm labor contractors’ inability to secure a labor force that is willing, experienced and able to perform the work. H-2A is also cost prohibitive and unworkable for California growers requiring an immediate and usually sizable labor force.

Are growers paying more to attract workers?

Yes. It appears that the lack of workers is driving growers to pay more – some as much as $20 per hour.  Field workers are harvesting peppers for $9.25 an hour, or $5 a bucket, whichever is more. A peach grower in a Northern California community where the unemployment rate is running 16 percent to 18 percent has gone door-to-door offering $20 per hour. Although he only needs 30 to 40 workers, he hasn’t been able to attract prospective workers to his farm.  His fruit is rotting on the trees.  Other crops, such as delicate strawberries, raisin grapes and flowers, require far more workers.

What is the California Legislature doing to ease the state’s farm labor shortage?

Earlier this year, California Assembly Member Victor Perez (D-Coachella) authored AB 1544 in the California Assembly Committee on Labor. AB 1544, the California Agricultural Jobs and Industry Stabilization Act of 2012, would have allowed undocumented farm and service-sector workers to stay in California lawfully. The bill was sent to the inactive file. In an interview, Perez said, “The California Agricultural industry depends on immigrant labor…

“As the largest economy in the country—with the largest number of undocumented population in the nation—California has a responsibility to lend its voice in the debate on immigration reform.”

At the same time, the Legislature is approving bills that are making the situation more difficult.  Recently, the California State Senate passed AB 1313, a bill that extends overtime pay protections to California farm workers.  The measure was vehemently opposed by the agricultural community, which told the Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment: “Because farmers, their employees and their operations are critically affected by the uncontrollable whims of nature and the seasonality of agricultural production, agriculture needs considerably greater flexibility in scheduling work than do other industries. State and federal laws recognize this reality. Federal law exempts persons employed in agriculture from overtime pay, and the California Industrial Welfare Commission understood and accepted the need to allow for a 10-hour workday in California’s farm fields. In fact, the commission expressly rejected proposals for an eight-hour day due to ‘substantial evidence to warrant a 10-hour day instead. …’ The commission received no compelling evidence to change it.”

There remains widespread agreement that wage laws in other industries and businesses cannot be equated with those in farming due to farming’s unpredictability, seasonality, and the dynamics of the weather and harvest season. UAL participated in a letter writing campaign to legislators asking them to vote no on this bill. AB 1313 was defeated in the Assembly, only to be reconsidered late Friday, 8-31-12 and defeated by a 34 to 33 vote (41 votes were needed to be approved). A note of thanks to those Assembly members who voted against this bill.

Also effecting farm labor employers, the state Senate Appropriations Committee passed an amended version of AB 2346.  This bill would prescribe specified duties on employers to reduce the risk of heat illness among agricultural employees, and would be enforced by OSHA. The bill also would impose civil penalties and create a private right of action against family farmers, opening the door to lawsuits.  Violation of the bill’s requirements would expose family farmers to lawsuits. 

In addition, family farmers could face joint liability if farm labor contractors violate the state’s heat illness regulations. Farmers do not hire or supervise farm labor contractors’ employees and are not       their employers. Nevertheless, punitive fines up to $200,000 could be imposed on family farmers for any violation of the regulation. There is still time to contact your senator!

And what is Congress doing in regards to farm labor shortages?

With an election looming in November, Congress is not working on any immigration reform and has tabled proposals to amend the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program.  H-2A allows agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature. Employment of a seasonal nature is tied to a certain time of year by an event or pattern, such as a short annual growing cycle, when more workers are needed than are required for ongoing operations. Employment is of a temporary nature when the employer’s need to fill the position, except in extraordinary circumstances, last no longer than one year.

Unfortunately, the H-2A program, the only legal program to secure an agricultural labor force for small growers, has descended into chaos.  The result is an emerging labor shortage in places that       aren’t accustomed to such conditions, says Craig Regelbrugge of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR).

What does the future hold for farm labor?

The evidence suggests that government inaction and unnecessary added penalties is placing the California agriculture industry at risk for economic losses. It is clear that the farm labor force is shrinking, adding to the overall economic downturn.  Some California farmers say the future could force more mechanization and imported crops. Already, some California vintners are investing in costly mechanization. Some growers are planting fewer crops, while others are looking at more creative ways of farming. 

Everyone agrees that California agribusiness needs to persuade the federal government to do something quickly to legitimize the agricultural work force.

Ruth Jensesn -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Ruth Jensen is the Business and Political Affairs Specialist for the United Agribusiness League.

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