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Ga. agriculture faces a growing labor problem

New, better federal guest worker program sought

POSTED: January 22, 2012 12:26 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Martin Lopez Andres pours grapes in a hopper during a harvest last year at Three Sisters Winery in Lumpkin County.

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When Georgia passed House Bill 87, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Reinforcement Act of 2011, the agriculture industry struggled with a sudden labor loss statewide.

"Much of agriculture production in Georgia is the production of crops that are highly mechanized. We can't do that with blueberries and blackberries and squash," said Bryan Tolar, president of Georgia Agribusiness Council. "If we don't have a labor force, we're going to have to decide what crops we can grow."

Tom Hensley, president of Fieldale Farms, called the immigration laws "archaic."

He said his workers pay Social Security and have federal and state taxes withheld. And for those who might "not have perfect documents," they won't reap any benefits from paying those levies.

A federal guest worker program is available to some producers. But H-2A is cumbersome, expensive and overall not the best for producers, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said in the Report on Agriculture Labor released Jan. 3.

There's not much the state can do, Black said. To solve Georgia's agriculture labor issues requires an act of Congress.

"The brand is broken. We've tried to duct tape and wire together H-2A for far too long," he said. "My belief is we need to start over and truly build a program."

The existing program
The federal H-2A guest worker program is available for producers nationwide.

"It allows employers to bring into the U.S. nonimmigrant foreign workers to perform one-time seasonal work," said Bill Downer, manager of coordination support services for Georgia's Labor Department. "Bringing in the workers must not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of other U.S. workers."

The employer must continue to accept domestic workers up to the halfway point of a work contract, a regulation known as the "50 percent rule."

Only when no Americans want those jobs can foreign workers be brought in.

"The majority of jobs are now being done by foreign workers, but U.S. workers get first shot at it," said Dan Brimmer, president of AgWorks H2 LLC, who has a background with the Department of Labor. "H-2A works pretty good. In Georgia it brings about 7,000 workers a year. That's not near enough farm workers, but it's some."

Employers advertise nationwide for domestic workers. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, said that makes H-2A expensive. Another expense is the wage rate, which is comparable to all pay rates in a region instead of being based on state wages. Producers also must provide housing and transportation.

State labor officials would not discuss any challenges with H-2A or proposed bills. Instead, they referred comment to Brimmer, who said challenges with H-2A include intensive paperwork and the government not being timely about the process.

He said some changes could be made to streamline H-2A and open it to year-round industries.

Only a small percentage of Georgia producers use H-2A, according to the labor report.

"(Producers) would like some program but the way it's organized now, I think they find it too hard to deal with at this point," said Michael Wheeler, Hall County Extension Agent. "It's gotten so large they can't wrap their hands around it, so they give up and don't try to use it."

In front of Congress
"We have a stable full of bills right now and we need someone to break out of the stable and start running. Then we can work to perfect it throughout the process," Black said.

"If we sit back now in January and declare to Congress we know they're not going to do anything, then I'm quite certain they won't ... to simply sweep it under the rug for another year puts our industry that much more in peril."

The bills include two by Georgia congressmen and three from Texas and California.

"Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Savannah) introduced the (Better Agriculture Resources Now) Act, which has a lot of good reforms that are needed for H-2A, and Sen. Chambliss this summer introduced a guest worker reform bill that also makes a lot of necessary changes," Tolar said.

Chambliss' proposal, the Helping Agriculture Receive Verifiable Employees Securely & Temporarily Act of 2011, seeks to streamline H-2A.

The HARVEST Act expands coverage to processors and packers of raw products; livestock, dairy and poultry producers; and ginners, nurseries and greenhouses.

HARVEST moves the H-2A program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture instead of the Department of Labor.

Chambliss was adamant HARVEST would not displace U.S. workers should they want the jobs.

"If a farmer goes in and says, ‘Based on my knowledge of the local labor market, there are not enough workers here to get the job done in the timeframe,' if the Department of Labor looks at that and says, ‘We don't agree with you,' they can go back to the old way, which is to require advertising," Chambliss said.

Kingston's bill, the BARN Act, has many similarities to Chambliss' and is co-authored by Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Sharpsburg. It also puts H-2A under USDA, expands coverage to dairy and ranching industries and addresses the wage rate and the 50 percent rule.

Black believes foreign laborers should have a biometric ID card just for agriculture labor so workers are less likely to work a season in the field and then transfer to another industry.

"They're already purchasing false documents. Why not put that cost on them and put the revenue in to run the regulatory program?" he said. "I think it is amazing that FedEx and UPS can track a package all over the globe but we're not willing to have a work permit to ensure people are paying their taxes and have data about where they are."

Growing Georgia's industry
"The guest worker program, should it be reformed and expanded, would be an absolute deterrent to illegal aliens," Brimmer said. "And the illegals who are here now, if we had a way for them to go back home and come back for a legal guest worker program, that would be a big benefit to our economy.

"Right now Georgia people are cutting back on production ... there's less tractors to be sold, less fertilizers and seed sold and when we cut back on those things, the economy suffers."

He said if Georgia's agriculture industry had an ample legal workforce, the economy would expand instead of contract.

Kingston echoed those sentiments, saying a better H-2A program will discourage farmers from hiring illegal labor.

Though poultry producers can't use H-2A now, Hensley said if given the chance, Fieldale "would fully embrace it" and would "be on the bandwagon from day one."

Tolar believes many would utilize a revised H-2A.

"When you have the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, invested in a farming operation and you had a viable alternative for a stable workforce, then it would be utilized," he said. "To say the system we have now is not broken is misleading and foolhardy. Congress can fix. Congress must fix it."

 



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