Ask growers what issue keeps them up at night, and the answer right now is likely to be labor. Increasingly, producers are finding that workers are in scarce supply. This season, growers of a variety of crops reported that they couldn’t get adequate numbers of workers to harvest their crops on time.

The topic is on others’ minds as well. Besides the budget, the biggest issue during this year’s legislative session was immigration.

Several bills dealing with enforcement and use of the E-Verify program were proposed early in the session. From the outset, FFVA and other agriculture organizations worked hard to educate lawmakers on how the legislation would hurt farmers’ ability to produce crops.

As the session wore on, several bills fell by the wayside. But Florida Senate Bill 2040, requiring all private employers to use E-Verify before hiring workers, passed the Senate Agriculture Committee and made it to the Senate floor.

E-Verify defeated…for now

After a lengthy emotional debate, the Senate passed an amended bill that removed the requirement for all private employers to use E-Verify. The House failed to take up the bill, however, and the issue died.

Throughout the process, FFVA was part of a broad coalition of business groups, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida, that pushed back against the bill.

FFVA called on its members on several occasions to contact their lawmakers and explain how the measure would affect their ability to grow and harvest their crops. The involvement of FFVA members and others was key in showing legislators and the governor how important the issue is to agriculture and ultimately to our domestic food supply.

Although SB 2040 didn’t pass, the issue is still very much alive. Lawmakers will no doubt revisit it during the next legislative session. Their efforts will be bolstered by a 5-3 Supreme Court decision in May upholding Arizona’s mandatory E-Verify law.

In that case, the issue was whether states that impose their own E-Verify laws are interfering with the federal government’s legal authority over immigration. The court said no.

The lack of an adequate workforce was a significant topic of discussion during FFVA’s committee and board meetings in early June. The concern over the labor landscape also was apparent during a series of meetings FFVA held June 8 and 9 on the topic.

The meetings drew high attendance and covered a range of topics on where we are from both a political and regulatory standpoint.

Employment attorney David Stefany from the Tampa law firm Allen, Norton & Blue outlined recent legislative developments and discussed in detail the importance of keeping accurate records to comply with federal and state laws and regulations.

He also touched on no-match letters (which are now being sent for the 2010 tax year by the Social Security Administration), wage and hour issues, and government inspections.

Federal lawmakers to mull E-Verify The political stage is set for the E-Verify debate at the federal level. The presidential election is approaching, and lawmakers are bolstered by the Supreme Court decision. Texas Republican Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has introduced federal mandatory E-Verify legislation, and the committee has scheduled a hearing on the measure.

Stefany says the U.S. Chamber is telling legislators that it would be better to have E-Verify mandated at the federal level than having 50 separate state laws. The chamber’s stance gives those in Congress the cover they need to pass a bill.

“We need to be thinking, where’s Plan B?” Stefany says. “Where is our labor going to be coming from?”

That will be a key focus of FFVA as we work with other groups statewide and in Washington, D.C., including the National Council of Agricultural Employers.

Continued involvement on the part of FFVA members—and all sectors of Florida agriculture—will be crucial in the coming weeks and months.

Lisa Lochridge is the director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association in Maitland. She can be reached at (321) 214-5206 or lisa.lochridge@ffva.com.