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Reforms Target Guest Labor

The federal program may get revamped, but some Ventura County growers are still wary.

October 05, 2003|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Santa Paula farm labor contractor Ralph De Leon has used the federal guest worker program once in California, wading through mounds of red tape just to hire 38 Mexican workers to pick lemons for two months in Ventura County's citrus heartland.

He said it produced nothing but headaches. It took him months to get the workers and he ended up losing money in the deal. Then he was slapped with a lawsuit accusing him of failing to pay the foreign workers all they were owed.

"It is a bureaucratic nightmare," De Leon said of the employment program that allows growers to temporarily hire foreign workers to offset domestic labor shortages. "The whole system needs to be revamped. No one is going to use it if it's broken."

Repairs could be on the way.

As a key component of bipartisan immigration reform proposed last month, congressional lawmakers are pitching a plan to streamline the guest worker program and make it easier for growers to use.

California growers say the program, known as H-2A and established under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, has become more necessary as legal immigrants have left the fields for more stable jobs and the statewide farm labor force has swelled with illegal immigrants. By some estimates, at least half and possibly as much as 70% of the state's farm labor force is undocumented.

Immigration reform introduced by senior Republicans and Democrats seeks to address some of those concerns by allowing for the legalization of an estimated half a million undocumented farm workers and their families.

To qualify for temporary legal status, workers would have to prove 100 days of agricultural employment in the 18-month period that ended Aug. 31. To obtain permanent resident status, immigrants would have to perform another 360 days of farm work over the next six years.

The legislation also seeks to address longer-term needs with proposed changes to the guest worker program. The bill would shorten the time it takes growers to go through the application process from 45 days to 28 days. It also would freeze at 2002 levels the wages that growers are required to pay guest workers, a rate generally higher than the minimum wage in most states.

The bill offers a range of other reforms aimed at making the program easier to access, including one that would allow growers under certain conditions to provide workers with a housing allowance instead of actual housing as currently required.

"Employers don't want to use this program if they can help it, but they've got to get their crops harvested," said Roy Gabriel, director of labor affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "The system is designed only to allow workers in when there are shortages, not to displace domestic workers."

Even some labor advocates who have long criticized the program are now grudgingly embracing the proposed reforms, saying it was necessary to make concessions in order to win support for the larger legalization effort.

"It represents a significant change in the process but we did not compromise any of the labor protections [guest] workers currently enjoy," said Marc Grossman, spokesman for the United Farm Workers union. "In exchange for these changes, we got legalization. If that bill passes, it will represent a huge breakthrough in our fight to do something to relieve the suffering of undocumented farm workers."

There are varying opinions about whether even a streamlined guest worker program would prompt its widespread use in California agriculture.

About 45,000 foreign farm laborers are admitted to the United States each year through the federal guest worker program, mostly in the Southeast, where they are used heavily in sugar cane fields and on tobacco farms.

Neither federal nor state labor officials track the number of agricultural guest workers who come to California, although they believe it is no more than a few hundred a year, with most coming to tend livestock on sheep ranches.

Ebony Williams, operations manager for Los Angeles-based labor contractor Global Horizons Manpower Inc., said it has become increasingly hard for growers to find workers who are in the country legally and willing to do the physical labor needed on the farm.

Williams said she believed more growers would use the guest worker program if they didn't have to maneuver through such a vast bureaucratic maze.

"They don't have time to sit there and wait for their applications to get approved," said Williams, whose company has provided temporary farm workers to growers nationwide and is awaiting approval of its first H-2A application in California. "We are definitely behind any kind of reform."

While support grows for a more efficient guest worker program, critics maintain that the system is unnecessary and ripe for abuse.

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