VERMONT — Labor has long been an issue for dairy farmers, but Vermont’s congressional delegation is seeking to alleviate some of that pressure with changes to federal guest worker policy.
At present, guest workers from other countries are limited to a one-year visa; and dairy farms, as non-seasonal operations, are barred from hiring through the program. The H-2A Improvement Act proposes changes to the current seasonal worker visa program that would allow dairy farmers to hire guest workers legally for a period of three years.
The reform bills have been proposed in both the U.S. Senate and the House, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. The Senate bill also brings in bipartisan support with Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., one of the bill’s six co-sponsors.
Fruit and poultry farms in Addison County already employ rotating groups of foreign workers under the H-2A program to perform tasks like picking apples and plucking turkeys.
The H-2A improvement bill would amend regulations to provide a more stable foreign labor supply not only for dairy, but also for sheep- and goat-herding operations, which face many of the same labor struggles as dairy does. The extension from one year to three, Leahy told the Independent, would address the need for a stable workforce on dairy farms.
“You can’t get workers for six months, then not milk the cows for six months,” he said.
Bob Parsons, an economist at the University of Vermont Extension Service, said an amendment to H-2A regulations would have a significant impact on the dairy industry in Vermont, since most of the larger dairy operations in Vermont employ undocumented workers, most from Mexico. Though these workers present papers when they are hired, Parsons said there is often an understanding that these papers are forged.
“Employers know they’re illegal, and the employees know they’re illegal,” he said. “Most of them like to remain under the radar.”
Though there is no way of telling just how many undocumented migrant laborers work on dairy farms throughout the state, Parsons said most estimates set the number between 1,500 to 2,000.
The high number of migrant workers in the state, said Welch, arises from the demand for a constant workforce that simply can’t be supplied within the state.
“What we’ve seen in Vermont is that dairy farmers just can’t get access to reliable labor,” said Welch.
Cheryl Connor, a Bridport dairy farmer and co-convener of the Addison Migrant Farmworkers Coalition, said that despite the legal implications, employing migrant farmworkers is the only option for many Vermont dairy farmers.
“Before the migrant workers showed up … the line signing up for jobs was scarce,” she said. “We had a very difficult struggle just trying to get American laborers who wanted to work on the farms.”
And Parsons said that even with the economic downturn and the ensuing rise in unemployment, farmers did not see any rise in domestic applicants for dairy jobs. Parsons said demand for laborers did fall along with dairy prices, but even as farmers were cutting back the labor force on their farms, they had to turn to migrant workers to fill workforce needs.
One Northeast dairy farmer Parsons spoke with at a recent farm labor meeting put help-wanted ads in 18 papers across New York, Vermont and New Hampshire and did not get a single response.
This, said Parsons, is why the argument that migrant workers are taking away American jobs just doesn’t hold water.
“It’s not whether Americans could do the jobs,” he said. “It’s whether Americans want to do them.”
And Connor said that the reform efforts were well received at a Tuesday meeting of the Addison Coalition.
“Overall, there’s a guarded feeling that it’s a start in the right direction,” she said.
A PLAN FOR REFORM
According to Sen. Leahy’s office, the H-2A visa program requires employers to provide adequate housing, transportation and food or access to a kitchen in addition to wages. These requirements would be extended to dairy farmers.
Parsons said most dairy farmers already pay their workers more than minimum wage, though, most dairy jobs also include housing. So while an H-2A visa program would add restrictions, Parsons said few dairy farmers would have a problem with the changes.
But the bill would not include any sort of amnesty for those farmworkers already in the country, and once in the country, workers would not be able to switch employers without violating the terms of the H-2A visa.
Both Leahy and Welch acknowledged that H-2A reform would only be a partial solution to the nation’s immigration problems.
To address these issues, Leahy is pushing for passage of the AgJOBS bill, which would amend the H-2A visa program and entitle undocumented workers currently in the country to a “blue card” — temporary immigration status — while they applied for legal residency.
Though Vermont’s congressional delegation has been pushing for broader immigration and farmworker reform for a number of years now, this is the first time H-2A reform has been introduced on its own, separate from a larger immigration plan.
“The immigration issue is a hot button issue, particularly along the southern border,” said Welch. “So while many are in favor of visa reform … it gets dragged down by the weight of the larger bill.”
And Leahy said the need for H-2A reform was too pressing to wait for the Department of Labor to loosen H-2A restrictions on its own.
“If we can’t get it by regulation, we’ll try to get it by legislation,” said Leahy.
As Vermont dairy farmers continue to ride out tough times and small profit margins, and Welch said they need access to a reliable workforce.
“We’ve got to make progress on this,” said Welch.
And Leahy said that if this bill passes into law, it will address the labor supply issues that Vermont dairy farmers and others around the nation face.
“It’d be a lot better than what we have today,” said Leahy. “Today, you either don’t have anybody, or you have somebody but they’re in the shadows.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at email@example.com.