In a push to ease the farm labor crisis, a group of House lawmakers look to H-2A visa reform. But can it get wider support?

Abigail Beckman/KRCC News
Workers pick chiles in a field owned by Hanagan Farms in Swink, Colorado. The farm brings 15 workers from Mexico to help harvest crops each April. The crew stays through October.

After meeting for almost nine months, the House Agricultural Labor Working Group has put out a roadmap to ease a farm labor crisis.

It’s an issue that has been coming up more and more at roundtables on the Farm Bill and other agricultural concerns across Colorado in recent years.

Colorado Rep. Yadira Caraveo, who serves on the House Agriculture Committee, said her office has fielded many comments and concerns about the lack of available labor over the past few years. She’s also one of the 14 members of the committee appointed to the working group.

“It was a wonderful group to be a part of because it really demonstrates what Congress should be doing more often, and that’s really tackling problems that have persisted for quite some time that we can get bipartisan solutions to,” Caraveo told CPR News.

The group was evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats and focused on the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program. The report offers 21 recommendations, 15 of which had unanimous support.

“America’s agriculture industry depends on the availability of a reliable workforce. However, as we have traveled the country, listening to farmers, ranchers, workers, and producers, it’s become abundantly clear that a lack of reliable labor is one of the industry’s greatest challenges,” said committee Chair Glenn “GT” Thompson of Pennsylvania and Ranking Member David Scott of Georgia in a joint release.

Many of the recommendations focus on simplifying the H-2A process, such as creating a single online portal to file H-2A applications, allowing producers to apply for staggered worker entry, and expedited review of delayed applications.

The list also included an ask that Caraveo heard a lot from certain producers in her district: expand the H-2A program to year-round workers.

“They really wanted this to be a year-round program,” she recalled. “For dairy producers, in particular, there's no seasonality to that.”

The working group also pushed for the creation of a federal heat standard for H-2A workers. That’s another issue Caraveo has been concerned about, noting it was a contentious issue when Colorado adopted a similar policy as part of a sweeping agricultural labor law a few years back.

Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
In this file photo, Rep. Yadira Caraveo, center, in blue jacket, holds a Farm Bill listening session at Sakata Farms in Brighton, Colo.

“We modeled (the proposal) after the Colorado rules and (Republicans) were happy to accept that as a compromise,” said Caraveo. “And so it was really a great exercise in actually working on a problem together with both parties willing to give and take.”

Ashley House with the Colorado Farm Bureau said the organization is “really encouraged” to see 15 recommendations get unanimous support, including some the Bureau thinks are particularly needed, such as streamlining recruiting and hiring of H-2A employees, the year round expansion and some wage recommendations. 

Those include some exemptions from the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR), a federal rule intended to keep the pay for foreign temporary workers from depressing wages for domestic workers. The working group is recommending that workers are paid based on the work they do for the majority of the time, as well as putting caps on wage increases and decreases.

Recommendations that were passed by simple majority included a Secretary of Labor Waiver Exemption of AEWR for small farms, allowing for joint employment of H-2A workers, and a pilot program for an H-2A visa that would cover up to three years at a single site or location.

“The majority of the group did recognize the need to reduce litigation within the H-2A Program thereby dispelling, in theory, the need for private right of action beyond the already existing protections,” said House. “To us, this means the (working group) understands how the meritable framework of third-party oversight is more appropriate than granting a private right of action.”

While it will be a daunting task of turning the recommendations into legislation that can pass both chambers of Congress, leaders of the working group remained optimistic. 

“The fact that our working group was able to agree on so many significant reforms is a testament to how widespread the H-2A program’s problems are and how quickly they need to be addressed,” said GOP Rep. Rick Crawford. “Now, we have to keep working with the committees of jurisdiction to make sure they implement our recommendations.”

The problems may impact the Agriculture Committee, but the committee that actually deals with visa policy is the Judiciary Committee.

As with many other issues, reforming the H-2A visa system has been a difficult issue to get through Congress. 

Sen. Michael Bennet tried for years to get a Senate compromise on his larger Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which had passed a Democratic-controlled House twice. 

GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse pointed out that several of the working group recommendations were already included in the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. “If FWMA was signed into law several years ago, we would have controlled the skyrocketing, double-digit wage rate that we’ve seen in many states in the past couple years.” Both Bennet and Newhouse tried to at least get limited changes to the H-2A visa program through in the last Congress, but that effort ran out of time.