Growers say labor law changes will make hiring more difficult
The Labor Department is trying again to roll back Bush administration regulations that made it easier for farmers to hire temporary foreign farm workers.
The agency last Thursday said it is proposing new rules that would boost wages and increase safeguards for thousands of seasonal workers brought in each year to help farmers pick their crops. It would also require that growers make greater efforts to fill those jobs with American workers.
If the rules are adopted, they would largely reverse regulations finalized shortly before President George W. Bush left office and return to a framework that had been in effect since 1987.
Labor and immigrant rights groups have criticized the Bush regulations, claiming they would slash farm wages and make it harder for domestic workers to claim those jobs.
The Labor Department briefly suspended the Bush rules earlier this year, but officials were forced to reinstate them after farm groups successfully challenged the decision in federal court.
“Every worker deserves to be treated and paid fairly,” Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said. “That is especially true of agricultural workers, who often perform backbreaking work for very low wages.”
Solis said the new rules would let the Labor Department take a more active role in protecting farm workers from mistreatment and keeping domestic workers from being unfairly displaced.
Farm growers say the changes to the H-2A guest worker program will make it more cumbersome and expensive for them to hire foreign workers for tough field jobs that most Americans don’t want.
“The Bush rules did go a long way to streamline the process and make it more feasible,” said Jason Resnick, assistant general counsel for the Western Growers Association in Irvine, CA. “If that rule is rolled back, it would be a huge setback for production agriculture.”
Resnick said growers are likely to take legal action against the new rules if they are approved after a 30-day comment period.
The new rules would return to the old standard for determining temporary farm wages, resulting in an increase for workers of about $1.44 an hour. Farmers would also have to submit documentation certifying that they tried to fill the jobs with American workers. Under the Bush rules, those documents had to be presented only if there was a government audit.
The proposed rules would require state work force agencies to inspect temporary worker housing before an employer is approved to bring in foreign workers— something the Bush rule didn’t mandate until after workers moved in.
Labor officials say the new rules do retain some of the efforts of the Bush administration to streamline paperwork and make the program more efficient. But they also go further than the 1987 regulations in boosting worker protections.
For the first time, the rules would require posting of farm jobs through an electronic job registry to make sure domestic workers get the first shot. And if prevailing wages go up in the middle of a temporary worker’s contract, the grower would have to increase the worker’s wages. — DTN