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Vineyard workforce outlook a muddy picture

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The Biden administration has a clear intent to push comprehensive immigration legislation, which would help the vineyard labor force.
Change in leadership and policy priorities create confusion about the status of immigrant farmworkers.

And why wouldn’t you be confused about the status of immigrant farmworkers and the H2A program and how politics will shape the future of the labor pool?

There’s even more confusion this year because of the change of leadership and policy priorities in Washington and what those changes might mean for immigration reform, labor availability, and workforce management protocol in the months ahead.

Hence the interest in a grape-growing breakout session at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium titled Labor Outlook for 2021 and Beyond.

Moderated by the head of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, John Aguirre, two panelists attempted to outline likely policy changes and what they might mean for the status of immigrant farmworkers and the H2A program.

Said Aguirre, “Every year wine grape growers wonder if they’ll have enough workers for the coming crop season — for pruning, training vines, thinning shoots, harvesting and more.  Add to that, how much will that labor cost in terms of wages and the heavy burden of regulatory mandates unique to agriculture.

“CAWG continues to advocate for immigration legislation that would provide an effective and economical guest worker program and legal status for hardworking immigrant farm workers currently in the U.S.  Under the Obama administration as well as the Trump administration, immigration and guest worker legislation failed to pass.  The Biden administration has a clear intent to push comprehensive immigration legislation as a top priority and hopefully the president and Congress can break the logjam that has defined immigration policy for decades.”

Jeanne Malitz of San Diego’s Militz Law Inc., said, “We’ve had very little time to digest the details or the rules or proposed legislation.  Every day something changes and rapidly in the effort to address illegally present farmworkers.

COVID-19’S detrimental impact

“COVID-19 had an extremely detrimental impact on the current labor force and efforts to legalize it.  Last year 275,430 workers were certified to enter the U.S. with California and Florida among the top states for worker entry.  In particular, H2A winegrape workers in Sonoma have increased over the last 10 years as the current H2A program continues to grow.”

Sharing the podium was Louie Perry, Director of Cornerstone Government Affairs, a Washington, D.C. consultancy, who agreed with Militz that, “The immigration issue is a challenge that needed addressing years ago and does so today, immediately.”

While suggesting that there was a bipartisan group ready to quickly address agricultural immigration issues, “COVID is taking up all the oxygen in the room at the moment with the White House focused on a relief bill and getting everyone vaccinated which will slow down the pace of a bipartisan immigration bill impacting agriculture.

“Expect a more moderate voice involving compromise and cooperation with centrists pushing legislation to the middle.  Tom Vilsack has returned as Secretary of Agriculture and the USDA is focusing on change which will present a big opportunity for agriculture.

“I am optimistic that Congress will ultimately act.  I just think it’s going to be slower than we all want, mainly because of the pandemic that now means we need to work on things virtually.  It’s just a lot harder to pass a bill when you can’t all get in the room and work out your differences.”

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