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Questions to ask when hiring foreign farmworkersQuestions to ask when hiring foreign farmworkers

Things to consider, actions to take to make sure you are hiring legal labor.

Erin Herbold-Swalwell

December 27, 2018

4 Min Read
Farmland and barn
HIRING HELP: The labor shortage is a big concern for many farmers in Iowa, where there are a lot of livestock operations.

In November, Iowa Workforce Development announced that Iowa’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped to 2.4% for October: a tie for a record low. While this is a positive statistic for Iowa workers, it also means that finding good help on the farm has become an increasingly difficult task.

In light of political, economic and immigration reform efforts, farm families around the country who routinely employ farm labor are facing severe labor shortages. In Iowa, the labor shortage particularly impacts livestock operations, and many farms are choosing to hire foreign ag workers.

What information do farmers who are hiring immigrant labor need to know to make sure they hire workers legally? Understanding the complex rules and regulations surrounding hiring is a daunting and often overwhelming task for many families. We put together the following employer checklist. It’s brief and doesn’t have all the answers, but it’s a good guide to help employers get started seeking and finding the needed information.

Farm employee eligibility checklist
Here’s how to ensure compliance with immigration rules.

Within three days of a new employee’s start date, an employer must present the employee with a Form 1-9 (Employer Eligibility Verification). The form must be completed for every employee, and you must make sure you have the updated form. See uscis.gov.

Employer should review the M-274 Handbook for Employers listed on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.

The employee must present acceptable documents. Form I-9 includes a list of acceptable kinds of identification.

Employer examines the documents presented by employee, making sure the documents haven’t expired, and appear to be genuine and relate to the person presenting them.

Employer signs the certification.

Using E-verify system
E-verify is a voluntary web-based system that allows employers who enroll to confirm the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S. If you are an enrolled E-verify employer, you can use the system to verify the identity and eligibility of new hires by electronically matching information provided with Form I-9 with records available from the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. Visit e-verify.gov.

Last but not least, maintain your records for current employees and for past employees (at least three years).

Iowa State University Extension is a great resource for timely hiring information. Melissa O’Rourke, ISU Extension farm and agribusiness management specialist in northeast Iowa, has put together a very informative article on the Ag Decision Maker website.

Better, updated system needed
The Mollie Tibbetts’ case has renewed talk of mandating the use of E-verify in Iowa and across the country. Many federal and state legislators argue that Iowa should mandate the use of the system, including Sen. Charles Grassley. While the system is voluntary at the federal level (except for certain federal sectors), some states have mandated its use for some private and public employers: Michigan, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, among others. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s E-verify law.

The American Farm Bureau Federation recently published a policy statement regarding the mandatory use of the E-verify system. Basically, the policy letter, issued in February 2018, states that AFBF would support the mandatory use of E-verify if the verification was simple, conclusive and timely, and if it provided “an affirmative defense for employers acting in good faith,” and among other things, is preceded by legislation implementing a “usable agricultural worker program.”

Mandatory use of the E-verify has received some pushback from the ACLU and from some businesses due to flaws in the existing system, potential privacy issues, cost concerns, due process concerns and the potential for employer liability. The outcome remains to be seen, but we can be sure this issue will be widely debated and publicized. It’s important to note some lawmakers advocate that a better, updated system be developed.


2019 Iowa Legislature in session

Finding, keeping and attracting good help is key for many farm operations. This will be widely discussed by the Iowa Legislature and Iowa’s ag commodity organizations. Access to labor, rural broadband infrastructure, affordable housing, child care and education, and the undocumented worker issue are sure to be topics discussed in 2019.

The Iowa Legislature begins its 2019 legislative session and the 88th General Assembly on Jan. 14. After the recent election, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds stated that her legislative agenda would focus on funding education, developing workers’ skills and enacting new tax cuts, all of which affect Iowa agriculture. Reynolds has made workforce development a priority through Future Ready Iowa.

In upcoming Legal Issues columns, we will continue to provide updates on bills introduced this session, their status and potential effect on farms and farm families. What will the Legislature’s response be to Iowa’s farm labor shortage? What impact will budget issues have on family farmers and agriculture this session? Stay tuned for new developments and answers to those questions.

Herbold-Swalwell is an attorney with Brick-Gentry in Des Moines. Contact [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Erin Herbold-Swalwell

Erin Herbold-Swalwell is an attorney with Brick-Gentry PC in Des Moines. 

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