OFA Bulletin March/April 2012 : Page 3

March/April 2012 • N u m b e r 9 3 2 Where will employers find the horticultural workforce of tomorrow? Recent immigration audits of growing operations on both coasts illustrate the challenges of replacing dozens or even hundreds of dedicated and experienced workers whose papers are determined not to be legitimate. A respected growing operation in the East recently had to terminate nearly 150 valued workers as a result of an audit. In their case, they redoubled efforts to recruit and place local workers to fill skilled and middle management positions. They did so, in part, by trying to restructure the jobs to make them more varied and attractive. They also made the tough decision to return to the increasingly problematic H2A program to fill a block of seasonal, repetitive jobs that were not attractive at all to locals. The results have been mixed. To successfully fill the nearly 150 revamped positions, the growing operation had to weed through 600 applicants. Maintaining productivity has been a real challenge. If other horticultural businesses in the area were put through the same challenges, the local labor market would already have that many fewer possibilities since the most promising 150 people are no longer looking for a job. the only “legal programs” that exist when too few Americans can be recruited – H2A for growers and H2B for others – have become labor union targets and are the target of egregious regulatory abuse by the Department of Labor (for more on H2A problems, see www.ncaeonline.org/files/ALRP2011_brochure.pdf). Where is Congress? At the business level, greenhouse, nursery, landscape, and garden retail employers are in a different place than major corporations like WalMart or Boeing. Few have a dedicated human resources department or staff; rather, hiring and I-9 functions are handled by a son or daughter or spouse, and are “one more thing to do” at an already busy time. Secondly, the seasonal nature of green industry businesses means lots of hiring and turnover at crucial peak times. Current green industry users of E-Verify report that it is tough to do all the follow-up needed in the event that a worker’s documents generate a “tentative non-confirmation” (meaning there is a problem that must be rectified). Third, some operations still have limited access to the technology, including broadband Internet, that is essential for the program to work smoothly. Then there is the controversial elephant in the room: the demographics of our workforce. Like it or not, it is well documented that a majority of the hired agricultural labor force in this country wasn’t born here, and has work authorization papers that are not as good as they may appear. As many as 70 percent to 75 percent of hired seasonal farm workers fall into this category, and while the actual numbers may be a bit lower in our industry than in follow-the-crop agricultural picking jobs, the reality is inescapable. There is also plenty of fresh evidence to suggest that even with employment hovering near 9 percent, too few Americans are willing, interested, or able to fill manual labor and seasonal jobs. The “legislative self mutilation” that has happened in Georgia and Alabama precipitated an economic calamity in the agricultural sector that has cost money and jobs. So if E-Verify were made mandatory and actually worked (see the identity theft comment above), it would screen out a large percentage of the experienced horticultural workforce. This isn’t every employer’s problem everywhere, but as an industry, the loss of this talent pool would have lasting implications. Meanwhile, OFA Bulletin Green Industry Perspectives Last May, it appeared that E-Verify would move like a hot knife through butter through the House Judiciary Committee, and to the floor of the U.S. House. The Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR), which ANLA co-chairs, saw the threat and mobilized. ACIR did not oppose E-Verify, but rather took the position that without an acceptable new agricultural worker program, E-Verify would decimate the industry. ACIR launched a campaign called “Save America’s Food and Economy” (www.saveamericasfood.org) which mobilized media and grassroots. The campaign struck a vein of gold in early September, with a major Wall Street Journal article capturing growers’ fears, followed by a lead WSJ editorial titled “Republican Overregulation.” So while E-Verify passed the Judiciary Committee in late September, it has since stalled. Republican leaders in the House have told the committee’s chairman, Lamar Smith, that he must resolve the agricultural problem (and a few other points of controversy) if his bill is to see the light of day this Congress. Meanwhile, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA) has introduced H.R.2895, the Legal Agricultural Workforce Act. It would establish a new, much more free-market and flexible worker program for the ag sector, including nurseries and greenhouses. If E-Verify regains traction, Lungren will push to attach his bill to it, which is something ACIR would support. Individual growers I’ve spoken to have widely divergent opinions on E-Verify. Some strongly support it being made mandatory, others take the Libertarian view that E-Verify is just more “big brother” intrusion by government. Most are somewhere in the middle – they would like a simple, straightforward way to verify employees, but they believe whatever the solution is, it must be paired with other needed immigration reforms. From an advocacy standpoint, we are neither “for” nor “against” E-Verify. Consistent with the middle ground described above, our position is that the issue should be addressed at the federal level rather than state-by-state, and that E-Verify should only be made mandatory if the program’s flaws are addressed and needed immigration system overhauls happen at the same time. The long-term picture for the industry is complex. There is no silver bullet. Rather, a combination of restructuring jobs, building better careers, redoubling local recruitment and training efforts, more mechanization and automation, and serious reform and improvement of the immigration system will be needed to ensure a bright future for U.S. growers. Craig J. Regelbrugge Vice President, Government Relations and Research American Nursery & Landscape Association 1000 Vermont Ave NW, 3rd Floor Washington, DC 20005 202-789-2900 cregelbrugge@anla.org 3

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