Moving Toward a Workable Guest Worker Policy

5/4/2013 7:00 AM

A farm business is only as good as its employees, and that means we need good, strong, reliable, skilled, hardworking labor. From the orchards of Biglerville to the dairies of Lancaster, the vineyards of Erie and the mushroom farms of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry requires a legal workforce to get the job done.

While hiring Pennsylvanians is a priority, willing, experienced and affordable workers are hard to find. Farming isn’t easy, and the promise of working in extreme weather and difficult conditions makes potential employees seek jobs outside agriculture.

Producers rely on seasonal guest workers who are trained in farming practices and will return each year. But it’s getting harder to hire these essential workers.

The H-2A seasonal guest work program allows agriculture employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to their farms to perform labor on a temporary basis.

The application for the program is tedious, the approval process is long, recordkeeping requirements are burdensome, and the program does not meet the unique needs of the agriculture industry.

In short, the program is broken.

Last year, I received phone calls from many major producers with concerns over the federal H-2A seasonal guest worker program.

The U.S. Department of Labor rejected their applications because the producers would require their guest workers to have drug and alcohol testing and background checks. After an expensive appeals process, the producers won, but not before their businesses lost thousands of dollars.

Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry can’t afford the H-2A program. Our producers need guest workers, and Gov. Tom Corbett and I are committed to helping Washington create workable, realistic guest worker policy.

Earlier this year, the governor met with the congressional delegation and offered recommendations that will help create a more viable guest worker program:

Create a guest worker program that simplifies the application process, decreases paperwork and expedites approvals.

Recognize agriculture’s unique labor needs, including flexibility in time and worker movement.

Make it easier for businesses to get the workers they need. Industries that need visa workers on an annual basis need a longer-term solution, and an annual emergency worker program is a heavy burden on businesses that cannot find a workforce.

The H-2A program currently accommodates about 30,000 workers. The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates the nation’s farms need 500,000 guest workers.

Allow producers with established guest worker relationships to continue to use the same workers each year.

Permit agriculture industries with year-round labor requirements, such as dairy and livestock operations, mushroom farms and processors, to use the program constantly, not just seasonally.

We’re continuing to monitor what’s happening on the guest worker front. The U.S. Senate recently released the Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, while on the House side, Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte introduced an agricultural worker bill that takes a different approach.

Things are happening fast in Washington, and we want to help ensure that agriculture is well represented. Producers who need guest workers should not be hamstrung by federal rules and regulations that make acquiring these workers nearly impossible.

A useable agricultural guest worker program must be developed and implemented, because the continued success of our agriculture industry depends on a stable, reliable workforce — a workforce that keeps our farmers farming.

George Greig is the Pennsylvania secretary of agriculture.

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