Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R VA) is re-introducing a bill that aims to replace the current H-2A federal guestworker program with an H-2C system. H-2A is a critical source of labor for many produce growers each year, but the program’s red tape, costs, and other challenges have had the industry pushing for reforms for many years.
Goodlatte spoke to attendees of United Fresh Produce Association’s Washington Conference via Skype, explaining his goals with the proposed bill.
The bill, also dubbed the “Agriculture Guestworker Act” and “The Ag Act,” was first introduced in 2013, when the House was in Democratic control. It faced opposition from both parties at the time.
With bi-partisan support to give legal status to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (better known as DACA) recipients, Rep. Goodlatte believes his bill will face a more receptive Congress.
At press time, Rep. Goodlatte had not yet reintroduced the bill, although he says he will do so shortly. Also, the details of the bill may change as it moves through Congress.
How H-2C Differs from H-2A
The proposed bill would change several features of H-2A:
Who’s included. H-2C aims to consolidate all food-related guest ag workers under one system. So all workers who would qualify for H-2A are included, as are those produce-related workers in H-2B and other groups previously not included, such as dairy and fishery workers.
Employment status. H-2C would includes both contract and at-will terms. H-2A, in constrast, allows only contract work. Also, under the proposed bill, workers will be able to move from farm to farm, following the need for workers.
Housing. There is no mandate for housing or transportation.
Number of workers capped. Early versions of the bill include a 500,000 worker cap. However, that cap is for new workers only, with anyone who has been approved to work for H-2A allowed to work outside the cap limit. Also, the cap will rise by a percentage the following year after the cap was reached.
Duration in U.S. Seasonal guestworkers can stay within the U.S. for 18 months before needing to return to their home country. The amount of time required to remain in their home country will equal 1/12 of the durations of the previous authorized time in the U.S., or 45 days.
Legal status. H-2C does not lead to citizenship, but does give workers a legal status in the U.S.
American Workers Rule. Growers would still be required to recruit American employees before filling the vacancies with H-2C workers. But they will not be forced to hire workers once guest workers have arrived.
Supervising Agency. The bill would move agricultural guestworker programs from the Labor Department to USDA.
Editor’s note: Rep. Goodlatte has officially introduced The Ag Guestworker Act. Read more about it here.