Saturday, January 21, 2017

Proposed Bill Seeks to Improve Labor Standards for Hiring Foreign Workers on Farms

From Empire Farm & Dairy:


A new federal bill seeks to improve labor standards for hiring foreign workers at farms across the country.

Dubbed the Family Farm Relief Act of 2017, U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, and U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, introduced the bill on Jan. 11.

The measure will move the H-2A Agricultural Visa program, which allows foreign entry into the county for agricultural employment, from U.S. Department of Labor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Doing so will help adjust the program to meet the needs of dairy farmers who use foreign labor to maintain operations year-round.

“When I travel the district speaking with our farmers, I often hear about how unnecessary delays in worker visas lead to difficulty meeting production goals,” Stefanik said in a statement. “This common-sense legislation simply puts the H-2A agricultural visa program in the hands of those who best understand the specific needs of our farms.”

Current regulations allow farms to use the program if they seek temporary or seasonal workers. With dairy farming being a year-round business, however, foreign labor on such farms is needed on a more long-term basis.

According to the bill, foreign laborers admitted for the purpose of year-round livestock farming, particularly dairy farming, will be covered by the H-2A program for no longer than three years.

Additionally, the bill would allow visa applicants to fill out H-2A applications on paper or online, requiring a user-friendly online system and ending burdensome requirements on advertising and prevailing practice surveys.

Jay Matteson, agricultural coordinator for the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency, said dairy farms in Jefferson County are largely unable to utilize the program because of its burdensome process for admitting a worker.

“Farms are always interested in trying to obtain workers from outside the country to come in legally. With H-2A, it is just not possible for them to do so,” Matteson said.

For long-term purposes, Matteson said, it would be ideal if foreign dairy farm workers could legally stay in the country for three to five years.

Matteson said many farms in the north country hire foreign employees from Mexico and Guatemala.

Sackets Harbor dairy farmer Ronald Robbins, who employs a few Hispanic workers for his dairy operation, said hiring a foreign worker involves reviewing their employment documentation. Even if paperwork seems to be in order, it is illegal to question a potential hire over whether it is truly legal for he or she to be working in the United States.

“As long as they present documentation, we are not allowed by law to question it,” he said. “We go with what we see.”

As it currently stands, Robbins said, it is “cumbersome” to go through the H-2A program for foreign employees to work longer than at least one season of farming.

Robbins said that improving the H-2A program for dairy farmers will help ensure that foreign farm employees are legally allowed to be working in the United States.

“It would give us confidence that the folks that are here, are here legally,” Robbins said.

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