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To deal with agricultural worker shortages that contribute to inflated food prices, a bipartisan bill is being considered in the Senate that would allow guest visa workers year-round, not just seasonally. The bill is stalled because of American Farm Bureau objections to expand the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Act that allows farmworker lawsuits against farmers and farm contractors.

House GOP Leader Says No Immigration Bills Will Move on His Watch

Senate negotiations to include climate change provisions in a Democratic reconciliation package collapsed last week, while bipartisan negotiations on food worker immigration legislation continue with the political clock ticking.

West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin was once more responsible for tubing climate change provisions sought by President Biden. Manchin called the provisions potentially inflationary. Talks within the Senate Democratic caucus had gone on for months and appeared to be making progress toward a compromise until Manchin pulled the plug last week. Biden has pledged to do what he can through executive action.

Manchin’s pullout also jeopardizes a global agreement for a 15 percent minimum tax on multinational corporations, which is seen as the crowning achieving of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. More than 130 countries have signed on to the agreement, which seeks to stop beggar-thy-neighbor tax deals to lure new business investment. US failure to ratify the agreement’s terms could unravel the coalition Yellen developed and encourage some countries to continue to offer corporate tax havens.

On a more promising note, Colorado Democratic Senator Michael Bennet and Idaho Republican Senator Mike Crapo say they are making progress on legislation aimed at easing agricultural worker shortages that contribute to higher food costs, especially for dairy, meat and vegetables. They have been working on the measure for a year and the pressure is on to cut a deal. The House, with GOP support, has already passed a version of the bill, though House Minority Leader Keven McCarthy has signaled no immigration bills will reach the floor if Republicans recapture control of the House in the 2020 election.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would allow more farmers to hire immigrant workers year-round under the H-2A temporary agricultural program, which is now only available to seasonal employment. The bill also provides a pathway to a more permanent status, a goal of farm labor rights advocates.

The main hang-up is disagreement over the bill’s provision that would allow H-2A workers to sue their farm employers in federal court for issues such as being shorted on wages, pesticide exposure or unsafe housing conditions. Farmers in the Southeast are the most concerned while farmers in the West are less concerned because they already have experience with the provision for seasonal farmworkers. Farmers who employ both migrant and domestic laborers are subject to similar legal requirements.

The major lobbyist obstacle on Capitol Hill is the American Farm Bureau, which warns of the potential for frivolous, costly lawsuits that would damage already fragile farm bottom lines. Farm labor advocates counter that the envisioned protections for year-round workers only represent basic standards guaranteed for other industry sectors.

The US Labor Department has reported a rise in violations for guest workers. In 2019, there were almost 5,000 cases of workers cheated out of wages and 12,000 reported employer violations. Some farm worker contractors, who recruit, transport and house guest workers, have been of the focus of enforcement actions, including debarment.

The Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Act (MSPA) has been in place since 1983. It was enacted with the rise in immigrant farm laborers, which can number as many as 3 million each year. H-2A visa workers make up roughly 11 percent of the overall ag workforce, and the percentage has tripled since 2012. The vast majority of visa workers speak Spanish and more than 90 percent come from Mexico to work in US farm fields. The act also requires farm labor contractors to register with the US Department of Labor.

Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, told NPR his organization still supports the bill despite seeing the labor law as a “confrontational” option to resolving conflict. “It’s compromise,” Gempler said. “I think what we have to do is make it work and make sure people are treated right and have protection. That’s more important to have the H-2A program and have a good H-2A program that we can use that’s affordable rather than hold out for keeping MSPA out of it.”

I think what we have to do is make it work and make sure people are treated right and have protection.

Oregon lawmakers earlier this year yielded to pressure from farm workers and their supporters by requiring paid overtime. The initial threshold for 150 percent of regular pay clicks in when a worker logs more than 55 hours per week. The threshold goes down to 48 hours in 2025 and 40 hours in 2027. Farmers will receive a state tax credit equal to 60 percent of paid overtime, which also will phase down.