AgJOBS, Guest Worker Program, H-2A, Immigration, Legislation, Wages

AgJOBS: The Grand Compromise

From HungerReport.org, “AgJOBS: The Grand Compromise” Nov 2012.

Farmworkers Forum note: The superscript numbers in this excerpt from the Hunger Report 2012 refer to the footnotes in the full report.

Migrant workers including Adela Aparicio (left, in pink) and her husband Pablo Hernandez (center, wearing ball cap and red scarf) rest after picking cucumbers all morning on Ricky Horton's farm in Blackwater, Virginia, on Monday, July 25, 2011. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World

Migrant workers including Adela Aparicio (left, in pink) and her husband Pablo Hernandez (center, wearing ball cap and red scarf) rest after picking cucumbers all morning on Ricky Horton's farm in Blackwater, Virginia, on Monday, July 25, 2011. Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl/Bread for the World

In 2000, after decades of wrangling over the contours of an updated guest worker program, the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security bill (AgJOBS) was introduced in Congress. It has been periodically reviewed and debated—but it has not been enacted into law.50

Although the bill’s details have changed—and are still being negotiated to reflect the changing political dynamics—AgJOBS reforms key parts of the agricultural labor system. The proposal is a compromise that follows years of negotiations between legislative adversaries—farm worker advocates and growers. Here we discuss two of the main components of AgJOBS:

Earned Legalization for Current Farm Workers

AgJOBS provides up to 1.5 million unauthorized farm workers with the opportunity to earn temporary legal immigration status—called a “Blue Card”—with the possibility of becoming permanent residents of the United States. In order to participate, workers must have two or more years of U.S. farm work experience before the passage of the bill. AgJOBS also offers workers an opportunity to legalize the status of family members.

Legalization would be contingent on workers’ continuing to work in agriculture for three to five years (the requirement depends on how many days per year they are employed) after enactment of the bill. This part of the compromise would mainly affect unauthorized immigrants already living in the United States and working in agriculture—many of them for decades.

Earned legalization would require that workers pay a fine and any back income taxes they owe. While working to earn a long-term legal immigrant visa, farm workers would be eligible for unemployment insurance and the Earned Income Tax Credit, which makes a tax refund available to qualifying low-income workers, but they would not be eligible for means-tested federal benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly food stamps.51

H-2A Guest Worker Reform

The AgJOBS bill includes a reformed H-2A agricultural guest worker program that would reinforce the program’s status as the nation’s only legal source of agricultural labor. According to agricultural economist Philip Martin, about 100,000 (10 percent) of the total 1 million long-season farm jobs are now filled through the H-2A program, up from about 30,000 in the mid-1990s.52

Under the bill’s provisions, employer “attestation” would replace “certification” in the H-2A program, reducing the Department of Labor’s (DOL) involvement in confirming employers’ need for guest workers. Employers would assure the DOL that they have vacant jobs available, are paying minimum wage, and are complying with other H-2A requirements. DOL would review and approve employer attestations within seven days.53

Under the current H-2A program, growers are required to provide free housing for workers. AgJOBS would allow employers the alternative of paying a housing allowance to workers, provided that the governor of the state where a farm is located agrees that sufficient rental housing is available. Experts say that this allowance would result in an increase in wages of about $200-$300 a month, depending on local rental costs.54 A housing allowance would provide farm workers with more options as to where to live, but it could also mean they spend more of their own income on housing.

Under the current law, agricultural guest workers must be paid the “Adverse Effect Wage Rate” (AEWR), the state or federal minimum wage, or the local prevailing wage of their occupation, whichever of these is higher.55 The current AEWR ranges from about $9 to $11 an hour.56 AgJOBS would roll back the AEWR by $1-$2 and subject it to studies by government and independent commissions. If Congress did not agree on a new wage rate within three years of the enactment of AgJOBS, future raises would be tied to the Consumer Price Index and could rise by as much as 4 percent per year.57 If this happened it would increase the earnings of lower-paid farm workers, who are working at or near the minimum wage. The average wage rate of U.S. farm workers is $10.07 per hour.58

Source: HungerReport.org, “AgJOBS: The Grand Compromise” Nov 2012.

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