I had the chance to chat on Sept. 29 with Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Agricultural Employers.
2 p.m. Tom Karst: NCAE recently released preliminary findings of its grower survey on the H-2A program. What are the main takeaway messages from the report?
2 p.m. Frank Gasperini: One is that the H-2A program, as important as it is for the people who can use it, is so broken and so damaged that just fixing it isn’t going to be enough to solve America’s ag labor problem. It does need to be fixed, but it is right now providing less than 5% of our labor. If it doubled or triple or quadrupled, it still isn’t enough. It is hard to believe that the Department of Labor and other agencies could possibly gear up to handle the capacity to provide us with a million workers, which is what we would need with mandatory E-Verify. So while H-2A does need to be fixed, H-2A alone is not enough. We desperately need to find some means to keep our existing workers on the job.
2:03 p.m. Karst: Are there regional differences in how H-2A is viewed? Do California growers see the program in the same was as growers in other states?
2:04 p.m. Gasperini: California doesn’t use H-2A very much. It increases the risk for them. H-2A doesn’t work as well for them because of the limited time frame for H-2A workers to be allowed in the country and because California agriculture is different. The lettuce harvest, for example, moves from Yuma, Ariz. to the northern middle of California. That’s even more difficult for H-2A workers because you have to chart every location they are going to be in there contract. You have to have housing at every location. So it just adds to the hurdles for using H-2A successfully. So they use domestic workers. The whole idea of being able to keep our existing workforce is critical for them.
2:05 p.m. Karst: What else do you think is significant about the NCAE survey?
2:06 p.m. Gasperini: A couple of things. During the Sept. 13 hearing by the House Education and Workforce Committee subcommittee on workforce protections, Rep. John Klein, R-Minn., who chairs the Labor Committee, he really questioned the DOL that 90% of their adjudications they lost. His statement was, this is not very good quality control, this is not very acceptable. That survey showed that. In general, the survey has done a couple of things. Ever since I’ve been here - three years - you would go to talk to Congress members and staff, and we would tell them these things. They would say, ‘Well, we know these anecdotes but you have any hard data we can use?’ So for the first time, we’ve gone and we hired somebody who really knows how to write a survey, someone who is imminently qualified, Carol House, who is recently retired from USDA where she managed the survey process for NASS. She knows how to write a survey with accurate and reliable results. Then we hired Washington State University to conduct the survey, so it is third party and it wasn’t done in a way that steered the direction. Fortunately for us in agriculture, the answers came up as we thought they would. So they back up what we have been saying for some time. That seems to have great weight with an awful lot of Capitol Hill staff and members. Without naming any names, I think there are some members who have genuinely though that tweaking up the H-2A program was all that needed to be done, who see that it is more than that now. Lamar Smith himself has recognized himself that he has to address agriculture. It is not because of the survey, it is because of lots of people in agriculture working together and staying together and staying on message and working to convince him of that . The survey certainly helped that effort and it gave them hard data. People can’t say ‘You guys are just whining and you want cheap labor.” We actually showed through a real statistical survey that the H-2A program is badly broken and is not the answer for ag.
2:08 p.m. Karst: What is the way ahead right now? You’ve got the mandatory E-Verify bill in the House and other potential amendments on guest worker programs sitting out there and the Senate has acted either? What are the next steps in this process?
2:09 p.m. Gasperini: I wish I really knew. There will be some more discussion. I think there will be another hearing, but I don’t know when. There will be a lot more discussion in the Senate. I think the United Fresh Public Policy meeting next week is going to be a big help because they will have 500 people and will be hitting the Hill. This is one of the issues they will be talking about. In the end, Smith will be promoting his E-Verify bill, but it seems he understands something needs to be move for agriculture. Our hope and need is for everybody in agriculture to continue working together and to continue emphasize that something has to be done. We can’t have E-Verify without some relief for agriculture at the same time. Agriculture really needs us to find a way where we don’t lose our current experienced workers over night, because that would be a harsh blow to agriculture. We need to push our legislators to stop and come to some agreement on something that serve domestic ag production.