By Melanie Trottman and Miriam Jordan
The Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2010
U.S. farmers will find it harder to get visas for foreign workers under a new Labor Department rule issued Thursday.
Growers estimate that the vast majority of field workers are foreign-born, although only a fraction of those—86,000 in the last fiscal year—received visas under the program affected by the new rule.
Groups representing growers said the rule would complicate their search for workers to harvest crops, and called for Congress to overhaul farm labor laws. Unions applauded the decision, which had been telegraphed last fall.
Under the new rule, effective March 15, employers seeking H-2A visas for agricultural workers will be required to provide documented proof that they looked for qualified U.S. people to fill jobs, instead of simply attesting to the effort. The Labor Department also is creating a national electronic job registry to help growers find workers from the U.S.
The department is also set soon to issue new guidelines for determining minimum wages at employers seeking to participate in the visa program. It said it took the action after wages for legal immigrant workers in the program fell following a change to the formula by the Bush Administration. The Labor Department said the average certified wage for H-2A workers has fallen to $8.02 an hour from $9.04 for fiscal year 2009 applications processed before the Bush rule change.
The Labor Department actions reverse changes in farm-labor regulation enacted by the Bush administration in late 2008.
They come as President Barack Obama faces growing pressure from union leaders dismayed by setbacks to their agenda, including a Senate vote this week that blocked the nomination of former Service Employees International Union lawyer Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. The leaders have suggested that unions—traditionally big backers of Democratic candidates—might sit out November's congressional elections unless the administration does more to deliver on promises to more strongly enforce labor laws.
The White House, in the aftermath of Mr. Becker's defeat, has sought to reassure union leaders that it 'will work with our allies and with Congress to help restore balance to the federal government on behalf of working people.'
The rule issued Thursday 'is a great victory for all farm workers,' said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America.
Tom Nassif, chief executive of Western Growers, an association that represents farmers in California and Arizona, said the new rules didn't address the problems farmers face finding seasonal help.
'Even with an economy that is suffering through 10% unemployment, domestic workers are not applying for these jobs,' Mr. Nassif said. 'We know our produce is going to be harvested by foreign workers. The question is: Will it be here in the U.S. or will it be abroad?'
Craig Regelbrugge, vice president of government relations for ANLA, an association representing nurseries, said the current H-2A program for guest workers needed to be overhauled by Congress. Employers complain that the H-2A program is costly, bureaucratic and inflexible. Farm workers on H-2A visas fill only about 2% to 3% of U.S. seasonal farm jobs, mostly in the fruit, vegetable, nursery and Christmas tree sectors, he said.
In recent years the H-2A program has become more widely used by nursery and greenhouse growers, as authorities have cracked down on illegal immigration.