Fixing Farm Labor Woes Worth The Extra Effort [Opinion]

Lochridge_Lisa2012

Lisa Lochridge

The Florida Agriculture Labor Relations Forum marked its 40th year in Orlando recently with its usual strong offering of seminars on topics of interest to agricultural employers.

Presented by the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation, the forum helps employers understand complicated workforce regulations, laws, and procedures ranging from audits to health care and transportation to guestworker visa programs.

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Keynote speaker Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, opened the forum on a serious note with a recap of what’s happened — or more precisely, what hasn’t happened — in Congress with respect to immigration reform. In 2013, when Gasperini spoke at the forum, there was a glimmer of hope that some type of reform legislation was possible. This year, the outlook was completely the opposite.

“The atmosphere in D.C. has been so poisoned the past few years,” he noted. “There are actually some good people in Washington who are waiting for all this to stop so they can get work done. The political logjam we have right now hurts everyone.”

The availability of workers and the state of the H-2A guestworker program are two of the biggest employment issues facing agriculture, Gasperini said, “and those can’t be addressed until Congress fixes immigration and gives us reform.” The lame-duck Congress won’t take up the issue, so “I think we’re looking until after the 2016 election to get meaningful action,” he said. “So what do we do now?”

It’s important for the Agriculture Workforce Coalition — of which FFVA is a founding member — to continue its outreach and pressure on the agencies responsible for the H-2A program and the administration for relief. “We have to try to maintain ag unity through coalitions and other allies,” he said, while working to “improve H-2A and H-2B wherever we can.”
Gasperini urged attendees to stay engaged with their congressional representatives. “Find out who they are, where their offices are. Make sure they know who you are,” he said. “The world is run by those who show up. It’s not enough to be angry and complain about the status quo. We ask that you take action and support those associations working for you.”

Other sessions detailed changing regulations and other topics of note for ag employers, including:

  • Dale Dubberly of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services discussed changes coming to EPA’s Worker Protection Standard for Agricultural Pesticides. Although they aren’t final, he expects substantive changes because EPA has said the current regulations are not effective. One change he expects is in the pesticide training certification program. “The train-the-trainer program will not be a four-hour course any longer. It will be a two-day course,” he said.
  • Kim Thompson, an attorney from Fisher & Phillips in Atlanta, offered advice on E-Verify and Form I-9 compliance. Thompson said the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service now looks more at employers than at employees, and the goal for the agency is to create a culture of compliance. She stressed the importance of timely completion and accuracy when submitting I-9 forms. She also advised employers to use a new two-page form rather than the dated one-page version.
  • Attorneys Ann Margaret Pointer and David Young of Fisher & Phillips presented a workshop, “Joint Employment: Different Laws/Different Meanings/Different Risks.” They emphasized that official definitions of “employer” are very broad. It’s important to address issues such as who is responsible for providing benefits and what policies apply to which type of worker, they said.
  • David Stefany of Allen, Norton & Blue outlined government audits and common problems related to each type. There is no better time than now to be compliant with laws and regulations, he said, adding that “there have never been this many auditors on the job.” Audits he covered included Department of Labor Wage and Hour audits, ICE audits, H-2A, and fair employment practices audits. Stefany advised employers to make legal and regulatory compliance an operational priority. He strongly encouraged them to perform self-audits to identify possible problems, establish procedures, and designate a person to handle audits.