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U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.

U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.

Northwest tree fruit industry groups tentatively praised Monday’s effort by U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, to revamp the nation’s agricultural guest worker program.

Goodlatte introduced the American Guestworker Act, or AG Act, which has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which he chairs. The measure would create an H-2C visa program managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to replace the current H-2A program under the Labor Department.

The AG Act would allow guest workers to remain in the United States for longer than the current program, opening the door for non-seasonal workers, and reduce or even eliminate requirements that employers provide housing and transportation. The act also would replace the current adverse wage requirements with either the local minimum wage or 15 percent above the federal minimum, whichever is higher, and mandate employers add qualified domestic workers up until the first day of contracted work instead of the mid-point, as the current law requires.

Under one of the bill’s more logistically challenging proposals, the new visa would be open to undocumented workers already in the country provided they return home to their home nation for a brief period after their visa term ends.

The Northwest Horticultural Council, a Yakima, Washington, based organization that represents the tree fruit industry in national policy issues, called the bill a good first step toward alleviating labor shortages that dog the industry each year.

“We applaud Congressman Goodlatte’s introduction of the AG Act as an initial step toward this goal and support its passage by the House Judiciary Committee this week,” said Kate Woods, the group’s vice president. “The Northwest Horticultural Council will continue to work with Chairman Goodlatte and members of the Pacific Northwest congressional delegation to pursue an ultimate solution that fully addresses the labor needs of our industry.”

Other tree fruit industry groups, the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, the Washington Growers League and Wafla — formerly the Washington Farm Labor Association — also endorsed the bill moving forward.

Mike Gempler, executive director of the Growers League, said he hopes for changes in some specifics once it passes committee. “We have concerns about some of the provisions in the current bill such as the cap, and the lack of provisions that address the large part of our existing workforce that has settled out and has been living permanently in our communities,” said Mike Gempler. The bill initially caps the program at 500,000 workers.

Rep. Goodlatte introduced a similar proposal, House Resolution 1773, in 2013 that never made it to the House floor.

The current H-2A program brought in nearly 166,000 workers in 2016, many of them for hand-picked crops such as tree fruit, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That figures could surpass 200,000 this year, labor experts predict.