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Labor a contentious issue for agriculture

Labor is a “contentious, ostentatious, ornery issue, and one of the most contrary and thought-provoking in agriculture today,” says Dan Bremer of AgWorks, Inc., a Lake Park, Ga., firm that specializes in acquiring temporary workers for agriculture and other industries.

Labor and agriculture are at a crossroads, says Bremer, and it’s important to look at how the issue reached this point in history.

“It all began back in the 1960s when Edward R. Murrow — a CBS news correspondent — went to Florida and found some bad labor conditions involving farm workers. The program, ‘Harvest of Shame,’ was aired, and it got people to talking about and thinking about labor on the farm. That was the start of where we are now as far as labor on the farm,” he says.

Farm labor, says Bremer, is the most regulated labor in the United States today. “All federal laws apply to the farm, and there are some very specific and onerous laws that apply to migrant farm labor. Right or wrong, this farm labor movement led to a lot of other things, including the 1974 Fair Labor Contractor Registration Act. There are people in the U.S. who find labor for farming. They take that labor from farm to farm and follow the migrant stream that starts in Florida and goes up to Georgia, South Carolina and then on up to Minnesota and Michigan.

“Before 1974, people who gathered labor in that manner were not regulated. But for farmers, it sounded as though it applied only to contractors. But Congress made the law also apply to farmers. So now, instead of the U.S. Department of Labor, Wages and Hours Division enforcing all of these laws, the onus is on the farmer. If farmers didn’t do it correctly, they could be fined by the U.S. Department of Labor,” he explains.

In 1983, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act was enacted into law, placing even more regulations on farmers and on farm labor contractors, says Bremer.

“We started with Mr. Morrow and we’re down to where the farmer is responsible for everything that happens on the farm. You can’t bury your head in the sand — you are responsible,” he says.

In addition, there’s the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, with the I-9 requirement, says Bremer. “This act looks at your documents to see if you’re eligible to work in the United States. Right now, some 96 percent of foreign workers can complete their I-9 because they have documents they get from somewhere that allow them to do so. But some 60 to 90 percent are illegal aliens in the United States, and they’re working on the farm,” he says.

There is currently a shortage of workers, he says. “There’s a shortage of workers wherever there’s a hand-harvest operation. This labor issue is coming up now because of this shortage. People used to come across the border to work on the farm. At one time, 70 percent of the people crossing the border worked on the farm. But not anymore. Most of them go to Atlanta, Raleigh, New Orleans and other cities for construction jobs, landscaping jobs and poultry jobs. They’re not stopping on the farm, and that’s a problem.”

Another issue with immigrant labor is that of Social Security mismatch letters, says Bremer. “As of Sept. 15, the Department of Homeland Security now says that if you get a Social Security mismatch letter — if you’re an employer and you get a letter where the name and Social Security number don’t match — then you’re supposed to do something about that. Most people ignored this before Sept. 15. Now, farmers and other employers have 90 days to find out why they don’t match. And if you can’t make them match, then you have to terminate them.”

Now that the Democrats are in control of Congress, some are wondering if something will be done on the issue of farm labor, he says. “There was a push to put something in the farm bill regarding labor, but it’s not in there. This problem hasn’t percolated quite high enough yet, but it will in the next year or two. Increased enforcement hasn’t yet reached the farm, but they have been hitting poultry, construction and meat-packing plants. They will hit farmers by the end of this year or early next year.”

There are several rules or minimum standards for local workers, says Bremer, including housing minimum standards. And if you’re transporting workers, the mode of transportation must have seats — workers cannot ride in the back of a pickup truck.

“Field sanitation also is serious business, especially after the spinach problems in California. You must have a portable toilet in the field if you have more than 11 workers on your payroll. And for every 20 workers, you must have portable toilets and hand-washing facilities.”

Payroll records must also be kept for local workers and hours worked must be recorded, says Bremer. Overtime generally doesn’t apply to agriculture, he adds.

“But in the case of produce, if you get to the packing house, and you’re packing for someone else, overtime applies. Farmers need to know specifically when overtime does apply.”

There also are child labor laws, he adds. “If you’re under 16, there are rules that apply on the farm. If it’s your farm and your child, there are no child labor laws. If you’re a corporation, which most farmers are now, then corporations don’t have children. So it could be a problem if you’re a corporation, especially if your child is hurt — then the U.S. Department of Labor and OSHA will become involved.”

There are separate rules for H2A guest workers, according to Bremer. A guest worker, he explains, is not an illegal alien, but farmers must work through a process to get the worker certified.

“You have to work through the various government agencies to bring workers here from a foreign country for a short period of time, from two to 10 months. At the end of this time, they go back home. Guest worker is a big buzz word now, and there are workers in this category for kinds of businesses and not just agriculture.”

You must pay an “Adverse Affect Wage Rate” to guest workers, says Bremer, and this is more than the current minimum wage of $5.85 per hour. In Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, the rate is $8.01 per hour. In Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, it’s $8.51 per hour. Other rates include $8.56 in Florida, $9.95 in Missouri, $9.02 in North Carolina, $8.65 in Tennessee and $8.66 in Texas.

On July 24, 2008, the minimum wage goes up to $6.35. Then, in 2009, it goes to $7.29.

“You have to guarantee these workers 30 hours per week. A lot of rules apply to these guest workers that don’t apply to regular workers. You have to give them free transportation and free housing, and they can only work for you. But there are no taxes on these workers — no FICA, and no federal or state unemployment taxes.

“You must hire all eligible applicants for these jobs — no one gets left out. And you have to provide Workers Compensation, which isn’t required in all states. Georgia doesn’t require Workers Compensation, but you must provide it if you participate in the guest workers program. After about 60 days of jumping through all these hoops, workers will arrive at your place. It’s a complicated process, but there is a process available for farmers to hire legal workers on the farm.”

Even with Democrats in charge of Congress, not much has happened on the issue of farm labor, says Bremer. But he believes it’s imminent.

“It’s coming. We’re about two years away from any reform. They tried to pass some immigration reform, and anyone who said ‘immigration’ was chastised. So they’re scared to death of it in Washington. But you can bet there will be more enforcement on the border and the interior. That will happen because the president controls the Department of Homeland Security.”

Agriculture has special needs when it comes to labor, says Bremer, and farmers should make that clear to their representatives and senators. “Don’t leave the final wording to Washington. Farmers should have the final say on this issue.”


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