Since I joined the National Council of Agricultural Employers last September, the administration and Congress have changed dramatically. Change, in Washington, is always challenging and exciting for industry associations and their members, but the challenge this year has been greatly compounded by the world economic downturn. Issues important to agricultural employers and agriculture have been sidelined, while the effort and funding we hoped would go to our issues have been diverted to the economy. This will continue to be an exciting but challenging year for everyone involved with agribusiness.
From the agricultural employer perspective, we are witnessing ongoing lawsuits over issuance of "No-Match" letters, proposals to require employers to use electronic verification, in-season changes to the H-2A guest-worker program, serious discussion of AgJOBS, comprehensive immigration reform, legislative proposals to facilitate unionization of the work force, and major debate on health care for every American. Each of these issues poses both opportunity and threat to agricultural employers. Agriculture’s challenges for the rest of 2009 and 2010 have just begun.
In March, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis announced that the Department of Labor would suspend the H-2A temporary agricultural guest-worker Final Rule implemented late in the Bush administration. Agricultural employers who use H-2A workers were extremely concerned about the prospect of having to change wage rates and application procedures midyear. The Department of Labor offered an unusually short, ten-day comment period. Growers, associations, and others responded. At the end of the day, the department delayed the suspension until January 2010, citing the fact that there were over 800 "substantive comments" received. As a direct result of letters from growers and allied agricultural groups, H-2A users have stability of process during the 2009 season.
The Department of Labor’s action on the H-2A suspension underlines how important it is for each of you to take time to participate in the regulatory and legislative processes through your local, state, and national associations. Although the department’s action is good news short term, it does not resolve the concern that it will revisit and reopen the entire regulation over the coming months. Your help will be needed again.
The long-term solution to address the needs of both agricultural employers and workers is passage of the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security legislation known as AgJOBS. The National Council of Agricultural Employers will continue to work with the Agricultural Immigration Reform Coalition to get AgJOBS passed through Congress to assure there is a fair, workable, and predictable legislative basis for temporary agricultural guest-worker regulation and enforcement. We will also work together to assure that the unique temporary guest-worker needs of agriculture are not lost in any ongoing debate of comprehensive immigration reform.
Other priority issues that will continue to face agricultural employers in 2009 and 2010 include unionization, health care reform, and the prospects that immigration enforcement efforts will shift from workplace raids to employer sanctions.
Even though the Employee Free Choice Act, also called Card Check, appears stalled in the Senate at this time, we believe it will be back. The administration and key House and Senate leadership have committed to labor interests to work toward this legislation that would result in a unionized workplace if 51 percent of eligible workers sign a union authorization card, and without a secret ballot. While agriculture has largely avoided the unionization issue in most states in recent years, card check proposals do not exclude agriculture, so we must assume that, if passed, we will face increasing union organizational pressures. The council participates with several national coalitions to oppose such legislation, and we urge all agricultural business participants to join.
An issue that has resurfaced with the new administration is health care. As the gap has grown between those with employer-provided health insurance coverage and those without, political pressure has continued to grow for a national debate and resolution. Several states have attempted to attain universal coverage, none have been completely successful. Some states, including California, have debated requiring all employers to offer health insurance to all employees. The U.S. Senate expects to have a bill ready for debate by June 2009. While many agricultural employers offer health insurance, the issue is made more difficult due to the seasonal and migratory nature of a large portion of our work force. The inclusion of noncitizen guest-workers increases the complication. Much of agriculture faces the same pressures as other small business and is likely to be in coalition with nonagricultural small business groups on this issue. NCAE will be formalizing our positions on the health care issue soon.
I invite readers of the Good Fruit Grower to visit our Web site at www.NCAEonline.org, or to communicate directly with me at frank@NCAEonline.org.
Frank Gasperini is executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers located in Washington, D. C.