Local employers hope Ag Committee votes down work eligibility program | TheFencePost.com

Local employers hope Ag Committee votes down work eligibility program

Eric Brown
Greeley, Colo.

JIM RYDBOM / jrydbom@greeleytribune.comWorkers pick cabbage in a Weld County field during a recent harvest season. Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, is working to pass a bill that would require all businesses, including farms, to check the status of new hires, beginning Jan. 1, 2013, with the E-Verify system. However, many in agriculture are against the proposed rule, saying that foreign labor has become vital to their operations, since local residents don't want to do the work anymore, and say a better seasonal guest-worker program is needed - not more regulation.

Weld County producers who have recently dealt with thousands of dollars in lost agriculture production due to worker shortages say more stringent immigration laws are not the answer to the problem.

And they’re hoping that message resonates with House Agriculture Committee members, who will vote in the near future on a proposed bill that would require all Colorado employers, including farms, to use the national E-Verify system.

E-Verify is a federal database that’s currently an optional tool for employers and checks employee identification documents to see if the holder is in the U.S. legally. Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, has spearheaded the bill, which last month was approved 7-5 by the House Business Committee to be moved forward to the Agriculture Committee.

Looper’s bill would require all businesses to check the status of new hires, beginning Jan. 1, 2013.

Looper, a member of the ag committee, said recently in a phone interview the bill is aimed at addressing the fact that about 400,000 Coloradans are out of work while there are an estimated 150,000 undocumented workers in the state.

But those in agriculture say foreign labor has become vital to their operations, since local residents don’t want to do the work anymore, and say a better seasonal guest-worker program is needed – not more regulation. The E-Verify system requires much more paperwork and time, producers and ag officials have noted, while some fear that tighter laws could lead to a mass exodus of immigrants in Colorado, as has been the case in other states where producers have collectively suffered billions of dollars in lost ag production.

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“Added regulation would just hurt us more,” said Dave Petrocco with Petrocco Farms Inc. in southern Weld County. His farm suffered about $150,000 in lost production last year from vegetables that weren’t harvested, he said, due to a shortage of workers that stemmed from his family’s business hiring local help instead of migrant workers. The family made that move since the H-2A program – a federal program used to hire seasonal workers – has become too difficult and expensive to use, he added.

Even in a struggling economy, Petrocco Farms experienced turnover of about 10 employees per week when hiring local help during last fall’s harvests.

“We need to be finding ways of bringing people here who want to do the work – not keeping them away,” he said. “We, along with many other producers, have discovered the hard way that local people don’t want to do this work anymore.”

Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar said during a presentation in Greeley earlier this year there is an 8 percent to 12 percent labor shortage in the agriculture industry across the country, and agreed with present producers that the problem is worse in states that have tightened their rules on illegal workers – such as Alabama and Georgia, where billions of dollars were lost in unharvested crops last year.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said a date for discussions on the E-Verify bill has not been set, due to legislators currently focusing on the state’s budget.

He added that he has not yet discussed the bill with fellow ag committee members to get their perspectives, but said some producers with whom he’s talked have expressed concerns in being required to use E-Verify.

“Basically, they don’t feel it’s their job to control our nation’s borders and regulate who’s coming here to work – it’s the federal government’s job,” Sonnenberg said. “They just want to hire people who are here and are willing to work.”

Charles Tucker, a Nunn-area dairyman who serves as a Weld County councilman, echoed both Sonnenberg and Petrocco’s statements.

Tucker – who, like many producers, has struggled to find local workers willing to perform the hard labor needed on a dairy operation – also said the E-Verify program has a tendency to be inaccurate. Officials with the Colorado Farm Bureau and other ag representatives and producers, too, have also said E-Verify has proven to be inaccurate at times.

“And then we get penalized for it in the end if we have an illegal worker on our farm … even though it isn’t our fault,” Tucker said.

Looper acknowledged that the E-Verify program is not perfect, “but is still a step in the right direction,” and, in addressing the concerns of the ag community, reiterated that the H-2A program is available for producers to use.

But farmers stress that the current H-2A program – which is the only federal program that allows a foreign national entry into the U.S. for temporary or seasonal agricultural work – is too expensive with too many requirements, such as having to provide housing for the migrant workers.

The Petroccos estimated that it costs $3,000 up front just to bring a migrant worker to the family’s farm through the H-2A program.

The dairy industry has been particularly unsatisfied with the federal H-2A program because it only addresses seasonal labor, and dairies need workers year-round.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and other U.S. Congressmen have expressed concerns with how the H-2A program is being administered, and have urged labor officials to host meetings with producers to identify ways to improve the program. They have pointed out that the Labor Department lowered its target compliance rate for timely decisions from 95 percent in 2006 and 2007 to 57 percent in 2011 and 2012. Additionally, since 2008, appeals of denied H-2A applications have grown by 800 percent.

“There are definitely problems with what’s in place now,” Tucker said. “And adding E-Verify to the mix wouldn’t help producers.”