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Santa Maria Sun / Commentary

The following article was posted on January 3rd, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 13, Issue 43 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 43

We need a new farm-worker law

E-Verify alone won't actually help

BY KEN McCALIP

Farm issues have taken a back seat to more pressing issues in our current Congress. These farm issues have the potential of being significant economic factors both nationally and most certainly locally here on the Central Coast. If farming does well, so does our local economy. It is one of the major drivers of local well being and directly or indirectly affects each and every family on the Central Coast. If farming collapses, so does our local economy.

Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, testified in Washington, D.C. concerning the mandatory E-Verification for all employers regardless of size or industry. It would require employers to verify eligibility before hiring. His message was the need for workable support legislation to go along with the E-Verification system. It is estimated that 50 to 70 percent of farm workers are not authorized to work in the United States. It was his feeling that a 21st century guestworker program is needed along with the E-Verification system to insure a stable legal work force for agriculture. Without support legislation, agricultural production in the United States would be substantially disrupted with E-Verification alone. Any solution, he added, must be practical and allow current workers to step out of the shadows to do the work that is so important to feeding our nation and the world. Many in our workforce want and need the ability to come to the United States, work on our farms and ranches, and return to their home country.

Currently, the only ball game on the table for farm interest is the antiquated H-2A program. It is designed to bring in seasonal foreign workers when domestic workers are not available. The program requires employers to provide worker housing, transportation, and set wages prior to recruitment. It also has an extensive application process that requires even large farming concerns to obtain help from experts. Small farming concerns would probably be left out in the cold unable to pay for expert help or would have to try co-ops.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, pointed out that the H-2A program is just too slow and bureaucratic for fast-moving harvest: “Farmers do their best to plan harvest, but unusual rises or dips in temperature or humidity could suddenly move up a harvest, giving growers just days or even hours to pick valuable crops.” A flexible system that allows legal workers to move from one grower to another would be more practical for farming.

A recent survey of farmers by CFBF titled “Walking the Tightrope: California Farmers Struggle with Employee Shortages” points out the urgent need for a legislative answer to these growing concerns for stable farm labor. Sixty-one percent of total respondents said they now experience worker shortages; 71 percent of those responders—who grow such labor intensive crops as tree fruits, vegetables, table grapes, raisins and berries—reported labor shortages. These shortages resulted in delayed pruning and harvesting, or they did not harvest some crops. Nineteen percent reported planting fewer acres or giving up leased land.

Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, has proposed a new market-based “W” visa program for agricultural workers. It requires a biometric visa, criminal background check, and incentives for workers to abide by the terms of visas and to return home after the work is completed.

Here on the Central Coast, it’s in our mutual interest for us all to be supporting farm and ranch legislation to go along with the E-Verification system being proposed and discussed in Congress. Take a few minutes to send your senator and representative an e-mail or letter in support of this companion legislation. It will keep food prices low and our local economy robust!

Ken McCalip is a North Santa Barbara County native who holds bachelor and doctorate degrees in history, cultural geography, and law from various California universities. He can be reached at foxmt.one@verizon.net. Send comments to the executive editor at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.