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News & Media: Staff Columns

Reading the ag workforce tea leaves

Wednesday, September 13, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: John Holevoet, director of government affairs
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This year has been an interesting one for those concerned about agriculture’s labor needs, and the remaining part of 2017 promises to be even more intriguing.

This month, national focus has been on President Trump’s decision to end the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). This program was designed to shelter people who were brought to this country as young children from deportation, while also granting them work permits. The president acted after attorneys general from 11 states threatened to sue to end the program.

While most DACA participants are not employed in agricultural jobs, some are. For those people and the farmers who employ them, the future is uncertain. The president’s decision does not take effect until March 5, 2018, and he has urged Congress to find a legislative solution. Congressional leadership is supportive of efforts to do so, and we know Washington works best when it has a looming deadline.

There is no indication that DACA participants will be subject to any immediate enforcement action. To the contrary, those with DACA permits expiring between now and March 5 were granted a limited amount of time to file for a two-year renewal of their protections and work privileges. Those whose permits expire after March 5 will not be able to renew, but their existing protections will remain in effect until their previously established expiration dates.

While a handful of immigration reform measures have been introduced this session, most of the attention and excitement on the part of agricultural employers is focused on the Ag Guestworker Act, authored by Congressman Bob Goodlatte. Goodlatte’s efforts are particularly important because he is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. This means he chairs the committee that would be the likely destination for any significant reform measures; therefore, his ideas hold particular sway over this entire debate.

As of this writing, the bill had not been introduced, although draft language and policy pieces outlining major concepts have been circulating. DBMMC’s participation in the Ag Workforce Coalition (AWC) means we have a direct link to one of the main stakeholder groups that has worked with the congressman’s office as he drafted this legislation. Our contract lobbyist team in D.C., Michael Torrey Associates, has also engaged with Chairman Goodlatte and his staff.

The most recent draft language calls for the creation of a new visa for agricultural guest workers. The number of visas that would be available is likely to be set relatively high and would be able to grow further based on demand. Also, there is a path for current agriculture employees to qualify for these new visas, regardless of their current immigration status. Therefore, this bill would likely address the two major workforce concerns that DBMMC has: 1) A pipeline for new legal workers and 2) A way to avoid losing current employees.

Without seeing the final language, DBMMC and the rest of the AWC has held off on taking a formal position on the bill. Requirements for e-verify and touchback provisions (i.e. a requirement that workers with these visas periodically return home) will give some employers pause. Still, this bill presents agriculture with the best chance for a stable workforce in almost a decade.

The rest of 2017 and all of 2018 could be critically important to the future labor needs of dairy farmers. DBMMC will continue to be engaged in the process on your behalf. We will also call on our members to help us communicate more effectively with members of Congress on this issue. Reading the tea leaves to predict the future will only take you so far, and it is time for us to make our own future. Let’s make sure it is a bright one for the dairy community. 

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