Labor report suggests improvements to seasonal employee program
by Mark Andrews
Jan 05, 2012 | 1263 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
State Agriculture Commissioner Gary W. Black on Wednesday released a report on agriculture labor in Georgia, offering solutions to address the concerns of Georgia's largest and oldest industry. The report, required by Georgia House Bill 87, was delivered to Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Speaker David Ralston.

"The results of this survey continue to make clear that the solution to labor issues facing Georgia producers rests in the hands of the federal government," Black said in a press release. "Agriculture is our state's No. 1 industry, yet the federal government is failing to provide our farmers with the skilled labor they need to harvest crops in a legal and efficient manner. It is time that our friends in Washington step up to the plate and provide us with a system that works."

Georgia House Bill 87, known as the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011, includes requiring employers to use the E-Verify worker verification system and allows law enforcement to question a person's legal status.

Bobbie Smith with the Department of Homeland Security previously spoke at the Cartersville-Bartow Chamber of Commerce on an employer's responsibility when using E-Verify as well as capabilities of the system. Amidst the controversy concerning House Bill 87, Smith said she also wanted to clear up confusion over what the E-Verify system actually does.

"[E-Verify] doesn't validate immigration status," Smith said. "[E-Verify] is not looking at someone's status or citizenship, we're looking at if they're eligible to work and if they have the proper documentation to work."

According to the release, the first recommendation in the report points out that only the federal government has the ability to reform existing agriculture guest worker programs to make them useful and effective for farmers, saying available options for farmers are too cumbersome, unreliable and bureaucratic to be practical in today's modern economy.

The report also suggests resources need to be put in place for educating the agriculture industry about the federal H-2A program.

According to the Department of Labor, "The H-2A temporary agricultural program establishes a means for agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature. Before the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) (http://www.uscis.gov/) can approve an employer's petition for such workers, the employer must file an application with the department stating that there are not sufficient workers who are able, willing, qualified and available, and that the employment of aliens will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers. The statute and departmental regulations provide for numerous worker protections and employer requirements with respect to wages and working conditions that do not apply to nonagricultural programs. The Department's Wage and Hour Division (http://www.dol.gov/whd/) has responsibility for enforcing provisions of worker contracts."

However, the report shows Georgia farmers are not necessarily comfortable with the program.

"More than 40 percent of respondents in our study said the federal H-2A program is not applicable to their operations," Black said, noting this includes year-round agriculture needs, such as dairies, ginners and landscapers. "Another 20 percent of respondents were completely unfamiliar with the option of H-2A for hiring workers and an additional 16 percent had only heard negative things about it."

The third and final recommendation suggests more research be conducted in order to fully understand the complexity of agriculture labor in Georgia.

"The findings of this report also indicate there are opportunities for improved relations between the agriculture community and the Department of Labor for worker recruitment, while education and outreach will help provide better resources for growers," Black continued.

Black noted in 2011, Georgia senators and representatives offered proposed federal legislation addressing agriculture labor. "We need senators and representatives from other states to join this effort in creating a solution to fix the problem," he said. "Our livelihoods are at stake."

As consumers continue expressing interest in knowing more about where their food comes from, the Department of Agriculture's survey shows the need for further discussions on a solution to fix labor issues.

"Georgians are concerned about where their food comes from; it is important to them. Our state has a great production capacity, but we need an effective way to get those products from the farm to the table," Black said. "I challenge consumers to look at the produce available in local stores -- you'll always be able to find blueberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, peaches and the other products you desire -- but where these products are grown and sold is directly linked to who is available to harvest them."

The study obtained responses from 138 Georgia counties, with more than 800 producers responding to the survey, including those from small and large scale operations. The full report is available online at www.agr.georgia.gov.

Additional highlights from the report include:

* Forty-eight percent of respondents found their part-time workforce to be roughly the same over the past five years, while 20 percent reported their workforce to be smaller.

* Twenty-one percent of respondents indicated that fewer full- and part-time workers were hired in 2011 when compared to the last five years; major reasons included a poor economy, loss of revenue, poor worker retention and lack of available workers.

* It is unknown if the lack of full- and part-time workers in 2011 was a direct result of the passage of Georgia HB87, however, the study's findings suggest this could be an issue and identifies a perception that the lack of workers could be related to the passage of HB87.

* The survey shows producers pay both full- and part-time workers at, or above, federal minimum wage.

* In 2011, more than 50 percent of survey respondents who are producers of blueberries, cabbage, cantaloupe, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, squash, tobacco and watermelon reported income losses.

* More than 40 percent of respondents said H-2A was not applicable to their farming operations; another 20 percent indicated they were unfamiliar with the program.

* Most respondents use word of mouth to recruit workers; approximately 13 percent use the Georgia Department of Labor and 3.4 percent reported using H-2A.