Feeding calves
November 20, 2019

Farmers Keep Fingers Crossed For Pending Labor Bill Passage

 |  By: Anna-Lisa Laca

It’s no secret that labor availability and reliability is one of the biggest challenges facing the dairy industry today. In fact, most industry leaders say it’s our biggest hurdle. That’s why the dairy industry is excited about the ag labor and immigration bill currently being considered in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

“We have a bill that Congresswoman Lofgren just passed out of the Judiciary Committee in the in the House of Representatives, and it should be in the floor in the next two weeks,” says Mike McCloskey owner of Fair Oaks farms and second vice-chairman of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF). “It's a bill that really represents what we need.”

There are three parts of the bill that farmers like McCloskey are excited about: H2A eligibility, e-verify and a path for current workers to become legal. 

“Permanent employers have been not been able to participate in H2A. As a matter of fact, it is illegal for a dairy farmer to hire an H2A individual,” he explains. “Which then leaves dairy farming the United States without any access to a labor program where we could bring in foreign labor to help us work on our farms.”

The lack of access to work visa programs has caused a shortage of workers compared to farms with seasonal needs. 

“H2A is used for seasonal workers and it works very well for them,” McCloskey says. “We've been asking for 20 years now to expand the H2A law to allow permanent workers versus just seasonal workers so that dairy farmers and ranchers and horse breeders and others could have that permanent labor that we need in this country to be able to help us in those operations. That's one part of the bill.” 

The second part of the bill, and likely the more controversial part, deals with farm laborers currently in the U.S. illegally. 

“It allows them to be able to get an agricultural work permit, to be able stay legally working in the country,” he says. “We believe that could be in agriculture between 1 million and 2 million people.”

Once dairy farmers are able to use the H2A, and legalize the current work force, an E-verify program can work well, McCloskey says. 

While McCloskey is hopeful the bill will pass through the House in the next two weeks, Pro Farmer policy analyst Jim Wiesemeyer says it won’t likely become law.

“Single digit, if not zero chances it gets through Congress this year, definitely wouldn't get through the Senate,” he says. “That doesn't mean it shouldn't happen. Even agriculture is split on this one. I noticed the Farm Bureau has not come in in support of this. So that gives certain lawmakers and groups cover if you will not to support this bill.”

The first snag is amnesty, although the bill doesn’t use that word. The other is that lawmakers are unwilling to carve out special immigration rules for agriculture, Wiesemeyer says. 

“I don't think you can nibble at it because those lawmakers who want a comprehensive bill know that if you have a carve out for agriculture, which is still needed, you could potentially lose a number of votes when another immigration bill would come into play,” he says. “So yeah, I don't see this carve out for agriculture no matter whether or not it has some merits, but anything immigration or jobs or workers right now is sensitive which means it stands a very low chance of passage in this Congress.”

Still, NMPF continues to lobby for the bill’s passage, even creating this online form for dairy farmers to send letters of support to their representatives. 

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