Labor debate weighs heavily

 

Ray Gilmer

Farm labor was on the minds of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association’s board of directors as it met June 23-24 in Sarasota. Having already experienced a tight labor market last season, and with fall planting just weeks away, growers are closely watching what Congress does with the embattled immigration-reform legislation. As I write this, Senate and House leaders have yet to schedule a conference committee to negotiate a compromise measure from two very different bills.

Sally Tibbetts, a staff member for Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., provided a labor legislation update to growers at the board meeting. “Sen. Martinez is meeting with as many House members as he can to explain the Senate bill,” she said. Tibbetts added that the recent announcement by House leaders that they would conduct hearings on the Senate bill “isn’t necessarily a bad thing” because it will help House lawmakers understand the Senate bill provisions.

In the meantime, Tibbetts urged growers to contact their congressional representatives to express support for the Senate bill, which contains the so-called AgJobs provisions—including guest-worker program reform—that are so important to agricultural employers. Many at the board meeting speculated that the prospects of lawmakers passing a final version of the immigration bill might be better, if at all possible, after the November election.

But even if Congress fails to act, the Department of Homeland Security in June issued a proposed rule that would amend the regulations covering the hiring or continued employment of unauthorized immigrants. The proposal aims to tighten the system, changing the way “no-match” letters from the Social Security Administration or the DHS are handled.

The proposed rule defines instances in which an employer may be found to have had “constructive knowledge” of a worker’s unauthorized status, based on available evidence. DHS has illustrated ways that employers can stay out of trouble by following “safe-harbor” procedures. At any rate, the proposal could result in big changes in how farm employers manage their workforce.

Walter Kates, director of labor relations for FFVA, ran though brief summaries of the Senate immigration bill and the DHS rule proposal for growers at the Sarasota meetings. Hearing Kates’ presentations, growers understood they needed to focus on work force strategies as they made preparations for this season.

“Labor is the most important challenge facing Florida producers today,” said Tony DiMare, FFVA chairman.

DHS is accepting written comments on the proposal until August 14. If you wish to read the proposed rule, visit the Resource Library section at our Web site, www.ffva.com. You also can visit the Web site regularly for updates on the immigration-reform issue.

In addition, FFVA has slated a special workshop on immigration reform

at our annual convention, Sept. 17-19 in Naples, Fla. Visit www.ffva.com or call (321) 214-5200 for more information. CVM

Ray Gilmer is the director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, (321) 214-5200. E-mail is ray.gilmer@ffva.com.