(Feb. 8) Changes proposed by the White House in early February seeking to make the H-2A agricultural guest worker program easier to use could be in place by the end of the year.

The changes were announced the week of Feb. 4 and were expected to be published in the Federal Register as early as Feb. 8, according to Sharon Hughes, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Agricultural Employers.

After the proposal is published, a 45-day comment will follow. A final rule — potentially published in June or July — could be implemented by the end of the year, she said.

“The changes are significant because the regulations haven’t been revisited since 1987, and there were some (proposed reforms) that were very positive for users of the program,” Hughes said Feb. 7.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner said the changes proposed by the administration will help growers find legal workers.

“What we are offering them is an opportunity to get their hiring back inside the law without compromising their business needs,” he said in a Feb. 6 statement.

Conner said the federal government estimates the U.S. agricultural work force numbers about 1.2 million at its seasonal peak in July, with between 50% and 70% of the agricultural work force in the country illegally.

Conner said only about 75,000 farmworkers were hired through the H-2A program last year.

Specifically, Hughes said the reforms seek to make it easier for employers to get certified for the program in the first place. Changes in the regulations concerning guest worker housing also are a plus, she said.

However, Hughes said proposed changes in the wage rate for H-2A guest workers may have an uneven impact, with growers in some states paying more and others less than the current program.

“Some areas of the country it may help, but in other areas, it may hurt,” she said.

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Washington, D.C., said in a news release that he was encouraged that the Department of Labor proposal appeared to move closer to a market-based wage rate for the program, as opposed to the existing adverse effect wage rate.

Hughes, Stallman and other industry leaders expressed appreciation for the administration’s initiative to reform the program.

“Overall, we are pleased they are recognizing that agriculture is in dire straits, that Congress has failed to act on immigration, and this is our next best avenue to have the a lifeline of a legal labor supply,” Hughes said.

The changes will make it easier for growers to get into the program, but there are questions about the number of workers that can be cleared by the State Department offices in foreign countries.

One negative in the administration plan, Hughes said, is that fees would be increased significantly for users of the guest worker program. The proposed rule states total costs for growers will be reduced or stay the same compared with the current program and insists that growers not shift cost of the program to labor contractors.

She said the reforms don’t diminish the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

“This program helps 2% of American agriculture, and possibly with these changes it can possibly double to 5%, but the other 95% need immigration reform. They need AgJobs,” she said. “We need to be able to recognize the current work force that is out there and let them come out the shadows and get status.”