The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] – Volume 22, number 8
Entrepreneurs and farm workers’ organizations agree that the Farm Workforce Modernization Act is the right step forward
By MALEA MARTIN
Alexandra Allen, owner of Main Street Products and Freshway Farms, has been running her Santa Maria-based businesses alongside her husband since the 1970s. But it wasn’t until the last few years that they started using the H-2A program, which allows foreign agricultural workers to work in the United States on a temporary visa.
“The H-2A program has been around for a long time, but we, like many growers, didn’t pay much attention to it because it seemed so overpriced,” Allen told the Sun.
Those bringing in H-2A labor are required to feed and house their guest workers, and employers are required to pay them what is called an “adverse effect wage rate.”
“The philosophy behind this makes perfect sense,” Allen said. “They are forcing you to pay this higher salary because our government wants to make sure that we do not hire foreign workers if there are domestic workers available.”
But the overwhelming reality, especially in recent years, is that there aren’t enough domestic workers to cover farm labor needs in Santa Maria, according to Allen. His company started out employing a dozen H-2A workers three years ago. It’s more expensive, but Allen said they had no other choice. This season, they will bring in around 250 workers.
“Here in the Santa Maria Valley, we produce food that nourishes the country and many parts of the world, and this demand continues to grow. … It’s a good thing, ”Allen said. “But the workforce is not increasing in proportion to the demands. As immigration has tightened, as the Mexican economy has improved, we no longer have the number of people who want to come to this country and work in agriculture that we used to do. .
This is why Allen supports the Agricultural Workforce Modernization Act, a bill recently reintroduced by U.S. Representative Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) and a group of bipartisan members of the House that aims to streamline the H-2A program and provide a path to legal status for farm workers . The law was passed in the House on March 18, presented to the Senate a few days later, and then referred to the Judicial Committee for study.
Once the committee releases the bill, it will go to the Senate for a vote.
“Essentially, we are creating a modern guest worker program that would allow employers to address some of the challenges they face with the existing H-2A program,” Carbajal told the Sun. He said these challenges include recruiting, the filing process, reducing costs associated with the visa process, and reforming H-2A salaries.
The bill also creates a new type of temporary status called a “certified agricultural worker,” Carbajal said. Applicants who show they have worked 180 days of agricultural employment in the past two years and who pass a background check may be granted temporary renewable status.
Those who gain the status and continue to work in agriculture for another four to eight years (depending on how long they worked before the law was enacted) can then apply for a green card, if they wish. Obtaining that legal permanent residence then allows them to obtain citizenship, just like anyone else with a green card, Carbajal said.
“We have been hearing about this for a long time and are hopeful that the Senate can do that job this time around,” Allen said of the bill. “I think we saw during COVID how important it is to have a safe and reliable food supply. Never in my life had I had the opportunity to walk into a grocery store and see empty shelves. “
the United Central Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), an advocacy organization for agricultural workers, also supports the legislation.
“It really has an impact on the economy of Santa Maria,” said Rebeca Garcia, political lawyer for CAUSE. “It would create a stable workforce for our agriculture industry, while providing that necessary ease for our community of agricultural workers to feel comfortable in their jobs. This opens the door for them to become more included in the community.
Certified farm worker status “would take away the worry and fear with which many of our farm workers exist,” Garcia said.
“The majority of agricultural workers in the country are undocumented. This represents 2.4 million agricultural workers… living with this constant fear of deportation, ”she continued. “By giving them the [certified agricultural worker] status would bring a lot of relief that way, and then having that path to citizenship on top of that is a new conversation for our farm workers.
Garcia said CAUSE would like to see the H-2A reform legislation go further in housing protection and regulation.
“Given the pandemic, Santa Maria has specifically seen the consequences of not providing safe H-2A housing that allows people to move away socially,” she said.
CAUSE warned early in the pandemic that the harsh living conditions of H-2A workers could increase the risk of infection and spread. A COVID-19 outbreak in July 2020 among Alco Harvesting workers living in H-2A housing confirmed this fear, when 95 workers were infected and a man died.
Garcia said the national E-Verify system proposed by the bill was a step in the right direction to regulate the guest worker program. It would be phased in after the legalization and implementation of the H-2A reforms, Carbajal said.
“The farmers will have a system whereby they control the people who are here,” Carbajal said. “It was part of the compromise reached.”
All but one of the House Democrats voted to pass the bill on March 18, and 30 Republicans also voted in favor.
“This has been a great bipartisan effort, and I think it provides a model for how we can work together on our ongoing immigration efforts that we will no doubt be working on,” Carbajal said.
Editor-in-Chief Malea Martin can be contacted at [email protected]