Aiming to ease farm labor shortages, the Bush administration issued sweeping changes to the nation's agricultural guest worker program Thursday, but California growers said the action would have only a minimal effect on their needs.
The controversial rules, many months in the making by U.S. labor and immigration officials, would streamline the guest worker application process, revise the way wages are calculated, and modify requirements for demonstrating that a labor shortage cannot be filled with U.S. workers, among other changes. Congress' failure to pass a comprehensive immigration bill, along with crackdowns on illegal immigrants, stimulated efforts to alter the guest worker program.
Several farm labor advocates attacked the changes, saying they would drive down wages, displace U.S. workers and reduce federal oversight of potential abuses.
But Leon R. Sequeira, the Labor Department's assistant secretary of policy, defended the changes as necessary to boost use of the H2A visa program, which has long been criticized as too cumbersome.
"Wrong, wrong, wrong," Sequeira said of the criticism. "We think the reforms will improve the operation of the program for both employers and workers."
The revisions are expected to have little effect in California, the nation's largest agricultural state, whose growers employ nearly 40% of the 1.2 million farmworkers in the U.S. Only about 1% of the state's 450,000 farmworkers are recruited through the guest worker program.
On Thursday, California farm officials said the changes would probably not lead them to significantly increase their use of the program.
"Some changes will help us on the margins, but it doesn't change our overall focus on seeking legislation" to legalize existing farmworkers, said Jack King, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, a Sacramento-based farm advocacy organization representing 91,000 members.
King said the variety of California crops and their sometimes unpredictable harvest times made it difficult to use the H2A program. Previously, growers had to apply for workers at least 45 days before they were needed. The new rules require them to apply 60 days in advance.
"There is a lot of uncertainty when help will be needed in California, but under H2A you almost need a crystal ball," he said.
King also said the new rules did not address two major issues for California farmers: revising the housing requirement and making dairy workers eligible for the program. California farmers had sought vouchers to help workers pay for their own accommodations rather than have to provide it for them. Some growers who have tried to build worker housing have been opposed by their local communities, King said, and others with short-season crops such as olives find it unreasonably expensive to build housing when they require workers for only a few weeks.
California also wanted to include dairy workers in the H2A program. Dairy products are the state's top commodity, but the industry requires year-round workers, who are not eligible for a program designed for temporary workers.
King said California growers would continue to push for farm legislation known as AgJOBS, a bipartisan bill whose guest worker provisions would eventually allow laborers to gain legal status and become U.S. citizens. An estimated 50% to 70% of the nation's farmworkers are undocumented.
Bruce Goldstein of Farmworker Justice, a Washington-based advocacy group, said changes in the way wages were calculated would lower the current $9.72 hourly H2A wage in California by 18%. He also said U.S. workers could be paid less than foreign workers.
But Sequeira countered that the new formula was more accurate, allowing the government to consider four skill levels and more than 500 geographic areas in setting wages. The current system of one wage is based on 18 regions.
Goldstein and other advocates also argued that the new rules would lower requirements for growers to recruit U.S. workers before turning to foreigners. Under the old rules, Goldstein said, growers had to expend as much effort recruiting U.S. workers as foreign ones and submit detailed recruitment plans, including copies of newspaper ads, to show they could not fill their labor needs with U.S. workers. But the new rules do not require such evidence, Goldstein said.
"It's ending any meaningful oversight of the program," he said.
Sequeira said, however, that new safeguards would ensure that growers were complying with the law, including random audits of applications and new authority to punish violators.