I have worked in agriculture for over thirty years. At the age of fifteen, I worked loading produce during the harvest season at the Pompano farmers market in South Florida. I went on to veterinary school and after graduation, I worked as a large animal vet in North Central Florida for 30 years. For the last six and a half years, I have served on the House Agriculture Committee, proudly representing Florida’s Third Congressional District. With over three decades of experience in and around agriculture, I can confidently say that I understand the needs of American producers and those of the farmworker.
Currently, agriculture faces an uncertain future because our nation’s farmers cannot find enough workers to tend to livestock or harvest crops. Labor scarcity in agriculture is not a new problem. Producers have been talking about this issue for decades, and likewise, lawmakers in Washington have failed for decades to come up with a commonsense reform to meet the needs of the producer while protecting the migrant workforce.
Producers who cannot find domestic labor use the H-2A program or use the I-9 form to find temporary foreign labor. The H-2A program is a vital tool for producers, however, the program is flawed in that it only allows for temporary workers up to 10 months legally in the country. Industries like dairy, plant nurseries, and others have full time year-round labor demands that aren’t fulfilled by these programs. Another flaw is it has no enforcement to keep workers in the agriculture sector. So once in the country, the H-2A worker can go work in another industry, say construction for example, that often pays more than agriculture work
The I-9 form that many producers rely on is plagued with many problems. One is that it does not confirm the legitimacy of a worker’s proper identification or social security number. E-Verify would help alleviate this uncertainty for employers, however the E-Verify program is not mandatory and therefore not widely used.
While our citrus producers are currently able to use H-2A, there are problems with the program that our proposal would address. Our proposal would allow producers to continue bringing in temporary workers using the H-2A program, but it addresses the high costs of the program. Many citrus producers we have met with have discussed the issues they have with planning for the next year due to the unpredictability and high costs of the adverse effect wage rate (AEWR). Our reforms to H-2A would eliminate the AEWR, allowing market-based conditions to determine the wages paid to workers.
Additionally, our program would make housing and transportation accommodations optional, allowing producers to charge a reasonable fee if they choose to provide these services to their temporary workers. H-2A would remain a seasonal program, allowing producers to bring in temporary workers for up to 10 months with the same contractual agreement between producers and workers. With these reforms the H-2A program would automatically enrolled the worker into the E-Verify system so an employer is confident they have hired a legal H-2A worker. In addition, once a worker is in the system, their re-entry into the U.S. would be streamlined like TSA pre-check. Our proposal would also simplify the petitioning process for employers who bring in H-2A workers. Once implemented this program will create certainty for producers seeking labor while easing restrictions on the valued H-2A worker.
In addition to the temporary H-2A guest worker program, we are implementing a five-year program that will enable year-round workers to stay in the United States. The guest worker will be able to renew their visa every four and half years and will be allowed to travel back and forth between their county and the United States or follow the growing season around the country
We must face reality. Without a reliable, predictable, and steady agriculture workforce, our food will not get to market, household food costs will increase, and our producers won’t be able to compete globally. This also creates the risk of making America dependent on another country for our food supply, which no American should accept. Our farmers and ranchers produce the highest quality food in the world. We are fortunate to live with such abundance, but we need individuals to work the fields and ranches to make this possible. It is imperative that we provide producers with the workforce they need to feed America and the world. While at the same time provide the hard-working migrants a legal, dignified way to generate income and opportunity.