U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) along with 16 Senate co-sponsors, including Senators Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold, today re-introduced legislation to provide much-needed relief to the nation's ongoing agriculture labor shortage, including specific solutions for non-seasonal farm workers, such as dairy workers.
The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act (AgJOBS) would reform the broken H-2A seasonal worker program, provide farmers with the stable, legal workforce they deserve, and offer a pathway to citizenship for hard-working, law-abiding immigrants already employed on American farms.
In particular, it provides a special rule for non-seasonal farm workers, including dairy workers, allowing them to obtain H-2A visas for a period of 12 to 36 months. This takes into account the year-round nature of dairy farming, and affords dairy farmers the same access to a stable, legal workforce.
"Agriculture is an essential industry to Wisconsin and nothing is more important to individual farms and our overall economy than the workers," Kohl said. "We need to make sure that farms are fully staffed and that we have a consistent workforce to continue our long-standing tradition of excellence in agriculture."
"Today across the United States, there are not enough agricultural workers to pick, prune, pack or harvest our country's crops. With an inadequate supply of workers, farmers from Maine to California, and from Washington State to Georgia, have watched their produce rot and their farms lay fallow over the years," Senator Feinstein said.
"As a result, billions of dollars are being drained out of our already struggling economy. This legislation would help to ensure a consistent, reliable agriculture work force to ensure that farmers and growers never again lose their crops because of a lack of workers."
The AgJOBS bill is a two-part bill. The first part would create a five-year pilot program to identify undocumented agricultural workers and legalize the immigration status for those who have been working in the United States for the past two years or more. The second part would reform the H-2A visa system to provide farmers and growers with a legal path to bring guest workers to the United States to harvest their crops.
The labor needs of the nation's agriculture industry remain consistent. Across the country, farmers are reporting that they do not have enough labor to plant, tend and harvest their crops. There are not enough workers to milk cows. As a result, farmers have been forced to decrease the size of their farms and switch to less labor-intensive and less profitable crops. Efforts have been made for years to get Americans to do the work, but they simply won't do it.
Other farmers are simply closing up shop. Between 2007 and 2008, 1.56 million acres of farmland were shut down in the United States.
Sen. Feinstein noted these examples:
In February 2009, a research group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison published a comprehensive report on the dairy labor situation in Wisconsin. The report shows that more than 40% of the state's hired dairy labor is foreign-born. The study estimates that in 2007, of the 12,551 people hired to work on Wisconsin dairy farms, at least 5,315 were immigrants and a majority was likely undocumented. The report confirms the crisis facing Wisconsin farmers as U.S.-born workers remain unresponsive to dairy job vacancies and, alternatively, the H-2A program is unable to provide the year-round laborers needed. The report also highlights how many immigrant workers come to Wisconsin with valuable skills and experience in dairy, and they often set up families and deep roots where they live.
Since 2000, Wisconsin farmers have faced increasing difficulty finding American-born workers willing to work the long hours, night shifts and weekends required on dairy farms. 53 percent of Wisconsin's larger dairy farms - those with at least 200 cows - require their cows to be milked three times per day, making this industry especially in need of reliable and stable laborers. The average dairy wage in Wisconsin is $10.06 an hour and the State's dairy laborers put in an average of 57 hours per week.
If Congress does not act quickly to pass AgJOBS, the United States stands to lose $5 billion to $9 billion in sales to foreign competition in the next year or two.
When farmers suffer, there is a ripple effect felt throughout the economy, including in farm equipment manufacturing, packaging, processing, transportation, marketing, lending and insurance. For every job lost on family farms and ranches, the country loses approximately three jobs in other agriculture-related industries.
"The central issue here is not immigration - it is about protecting and preserving the American economy," Senator Feinstein said. "We in Congress should be doing everything possible to prevent U.S. farms from shutting down."
This new legislation has been negotiated with and is backed by both laborers and growers. Well over 200 national and state agricultural organizations have signed on in support, including Dairy Business Association of Wisconsin, National Farmers Union, Western Growers, the Dairy Farmers of America, the National Cattlemens' Beef Association, the National Milk Producers Federation and the National Council of Agricultural Employers.
Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) have introduced companion legislation in the House.
Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act (AgJOBS)
Undocumented agriculture workers would be eligible for a "blue card" if they can demonstrate having worked in American agriculture for at least 150 work days (or 863 hours) over the previous two years before December 31, 2008.
The blue card holder would be required to work in American agriculture for an additional three years (working at least150 work days per year) or five years (working at least 100 work days per year), before becoming eligible to apply for a green card to become a permanent legal resident.
The blue card would entitle the worker to a temporary legal resident status. The total number of blue cards would be capped at 1.35 million over a five-year period, and the program would sunset after five years.
Before applying for a green card, participants would be required to pay a fine of $500, show that they are current on their taxes, and show that they have not been convicted of any crime that involves bodily injury, the threat of serious bodily injury, or harm to property in excess of $500.
Employment would be verified through employer issued statements, pay stubs, W-2 forms, employer contracts, time cards, employer sponsored health care or payment of taxes.
All blue cards would have encrypted, biometric identifiers and contain other anti-counterfeiting protection.
The bill also would streamline the H-2A seasonal worker program so that it realistically responds to agriculture needs.
The bill would shorten the labor certification process, which now often takes 60 days or more, and reduce the approval time to 48 to 72 hours.
The bill also would require that growers first advertise and recruit U.S. workers in the local area by filing job notifications with state employment agencies.
The Department of Labor would be required to process H-2A applications within 7 days and notify the consulate or port of entry within 7 days of receipt.
The Adverse Effect Wage Rate would be frozen for three years, to be gradually replaced with a prevailing wage standard.
H-2A visas would be secure and counterfeit resistant.