Local industry groups push for reforms to visa program for foreign agricultural workers

Published: Jul. 28, 2022 at 8:03 PM CDT
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KANSAS CITY, Kan. (KCTV) -- Agricultural organizations are advocating for the passage of a federal bill to reform farm labor programs.

Earlier this year the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1603, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, a series of changes to the H-2A temporary worker visa program. The senate has taken no action on the bill since its introduction in March.

Under current law, the H-2A visa program applies to temporary or seasonal workers. The reforms in the bill include an extension of the program to include nonseasonal workers, which would allow dairy, livestock and other agricultural operations greater access to a labor pool of foreign-born workers.

Jackie Klippenstein, a policy executive for the KCK-based Dairy Farmers of America, said the current farm labor system in the US is flawed. She said that dairy farmers in particular have had difficulty finding a consistent pool of farm labor, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. She and others in the industry have been calling for reforms for more than two decades.

“We’ve been short on farm labor on the agricultural side for a long, long time,” Klippenstein said.

The DFA is one of more than 300 industry and labor organizations that have voiced support for the FWMA.

The summary of the bill lists several reforms to the H-2A visa program, including:

“(1) modifying the method for calculating and making adjustments to the H-2A worker minimum wage, (2) specifying how an employer may satisfy requirements that it attempted to recruit U.S. workers, (3) requiring H-2A employers to guarantee certain minimum work hours, (4) making the program available for agricultural work that is not temporary or seasonal, and (5) reserving a visa allocation for the dairy industry.”

Other industry groups, such as the American Farm Bureau Federation,  have raised concerns about whether other reforms to the temporary work visas would be needed before extending the program to nonseasonal workers.

Allison Crittenden, the AFBF director of government affairs, sent a statement to KCTV5 explaining some of those concerns, writing:

“Each time FWMA has passed in the House, AFBF has pointed to several key areas in which the legislation conflicts with AFBF policy. Provisions concerning the AEWR, the expansion of MSPA to H-2A, caps on year-round visas, and the inclusion of e-verify only for agriculture without adequately reforming H-2A first are the main issues of concern. It’s important the Senate continues these bipartisan discussions to ensure a Senate ag labor solution does not include provisions that would harm American farmers and ranchers. There is a sense of urgency from Farm Bureau and other agricultural stakeholders to finally accomplish ag labor reform.  However, it’s also critically important the legislation that is put forward in the Senate addresses these issues in a substantive manner.”

Klippenstein said the reforms outlined in the bill would create a more consistent labor pool for farmers, which would in turn help to ensure a more stable food supply nationwide.

“Ensuring that farmers have the tools necessary to produce that food is critical to the success of our nation,” she said.