Panel: Farm labor solutions include a mix of political and impractical ideas
March 2, 2018
DENVER — Many people don't like to talk about illegal immigrants and how they fit into the agriculture industry, but a recent panel discussion took on the topic.
Jon Slutsky, owner of La Luna Dairy, in Wellington, Colo., pointed to the statistics to show illegal immigrants are still working in Colorado. Slutsky said 36 percent of Colorado farmworkers are undocumented.
Slutsky was part a panel of three during the Governor's Forum on Colorado Agriculture on Feb. 21.
He said in just the state of Colorado, there are about 200,000 undocumented residents, and 32 percent of them work in agriculture.
But — as was quickly pointed out in the panel — these immigrants aren't stealing jobs from U.S. citizens because most don't want these agriculture jobs.
THE RESTRAINT OF H-2A
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The H-2A program allows agriculture operators to hire seasonal employees from other countries.
"It's a good program," said Kelli Griffith, executive director of Mountain Plains Ag Services, which represents 17 states and specializes in cattle and sheep herders. "It's worked for a lot of years … but it also is not without problems."
One of the glaring issues discussed was how restrictive the program can be.
"As far as from a political standpoint, we spend a lot of time at state and federal levels trying to adjust, work with and get relief on different parts of the H-2A program," Griffith said.
Some examples of limits of the H-2A program include:
» Paying the cost of travel from their country to the place of employment
» Paying for green cards
» Providing housing
» In some cases, providing meals
» Being responsible for three quarters of their time, regardless if the worker is there the full time
» The minimum wage for H-2A workers is higher than the federal standard
» Preference for U.S. workers
Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, said many who apply for farm work think they are going to be sitting in an air-conditioned tractor.
When U.S. workers find out that their perceptions of farm work are misguided, they tend to quit after it's too late for the farmer to get additional H-2A workers.
It's not that producers prefer to get workers through the H-2A program because of the extra costs, but when U.S. workers don't want the jobs, what are they to do?
MIXING POLITICS AND IMPRACTICAL SOLUTIONS
As part of Griffith's role with Mountain Plains Ag Services, she spends a lot of time advocating for fair legislation for the producers, including labor issues.
Marsh said ideas that have been discussed include supplementing the work done by H-2A workers. But that could be problematic.
He said Republicans and Democrats have proposed impractical ideas for solutions. Marsh said Republicans have suggested using prisoners or welfare recipients to do the work. But, Marsh said, using prisoners would be a public relations nightmare and many folks on welfare are disabled, so that's not a practical idea.
He said, on the Democratic side, the solution is to simply pay them more — which isn't practical either.
Griffith has personally seen how increasing wages hasn't led to a surplus of workers.
"The minimum wage for herders has more than doubled in the last few years. But that didn't come with an increase in applicants of U.S. workers," she said.❖
— Fox is a reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at (970) 392-4410 or on Twitter @FoxonaFarm.