PALM BEACH, Fla. — It is a 50-50 chance that bipartisan legislation to reform key aspects of the H-2A guest worker program will be considered by Congress this fall, says Craig Regelbrugge.
Regelbrugge, senior vice president of public policy and government relations for Washington, D.C.-based AmericanHort, spoke about H-2A reform Sept. 25 at the 76th annual Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association convention.
In an hour-long speech, Regelbrugge outlined the status of potential legislation, and highlighted areas of agreement and sticking points to a deal.
“There are at least some possibilities of legislation taking shape and moving forward very soon,” he said.
He also covered the Trump administration’s efforts to introduce regulatory tweaks to the H-2A program, and where some of those changes may fall short of industry needs.
Worker and H-2A trends
Regelbrugge said the 2016 National Agricultural Workers Survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that while the existing workforce is mainly dedicated to agriculture and is fairly stable, it is vulnerable to aging out of the workforce, attrition and enforcement actions.
In 2016, 69% of farm workers were from Mexico, while about 25% were born in the U.S. or Puerto Rico. Central America accounted for about 6% of workers, according to the survey.
About half of workers in 2016 said they were legally authorized to work in the U.S., though Regelbrugge said that the number of unauthorized workers could be underreported. About 75% of farmworkers said they have been in the U.S. at least ten years, according to the survey.
Enrollment in the H-2A program continues to grow, with the number of applications for guest workers up more than 11% so far in fiscal year 2019.
“The increase (in the program) has increased a little slower this year, but it looks to be on pace for double digit (gains),” he said.
Total positions filled by the H-2A program through the first three quarters were 206,000, on pace to exceed the fiscal 2018 total of 242,000.
The divided control of Congress means that common ground between Democrats and Republicans is needed for H-2A reform, Regelbrugge said. Key players in negotiations include Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., Mike Simpson, R-Ind., and Mario Rafael Caballero Díaz-Balart, R-Fla.
Agriculture employer advocates want to stabilize the current workforce in a way that ensures that workers are legal and have an incentive to remain in agriculture, he said. Employers also want a program that is more efficient, has less rapid wage growth and offers expanded access. In return, he said ag employers will likely have to be a part o the E-Verify program for new hires as part of the House legislation.
The next week or so is critical if the legislation proceeds, Regelbrugge said.
“Is there a deal in our future?” Regelbrugge asked. “I think today, it’s probably about a coin toss as to whether these negotiations will produce a deal,” he said.
Whether a deal happens or not, Regelbrugge said agriculture employers will continue to embrace mechanization, automation and innovation. He said employers must diversify beyond Mexico in finding workers.
“I am hearing from more and more people who have a recruiting presence in Mexico that it’s getting harder and harder to find (workers),” he said. “A lot of communities have been picked through, and there really isn’t a good labor force in waiting anymore.”
Central American countries like Guatemala could be an expanding source of workers.
Even if H-2A legislation isn’t considered by Congress this fall, the Trump administration’s pending regulatory changes to the program will help growers to some degree.
“Hopefully, (the Department of Labor) will fix the things that we’re concerned about, that we all commented on,” he said. “But ultimately, we do need to figure out a way to get some things from Congress, and that remains a primary goal of ours.”