Walberg Statement: Hearing on "Workforce Challenges Facing the Agriculture Industry"
As prepared for delivery.
WASHINGTON, D.C., September 13, 2011
Across the country, countless farmers and workers are beginning to bring in this fall’s harvest. Despite the rapid advances of farming technology, more than a million workers are still needed to bring crops to market each year. It is hard work that often goes unnoticed by the average consumer in the local grocery store. Without any doubt, the men and women who earn a living in our nation’s agriculture industry deserve our gratitude.
For these employers and workers, timing is crucial. A missed day in the field can result in a substantial loss of crops, which means a decline in revenue for employers and lost wages for workers. And the consequences don’t stop there. According to one estimate, for every one farm worker there are 3.1 additional jobs in agriculture and its supporting industries. Agriculture remains an integral part of the economy.
As elected officials, we have a responsibility to ensure federal programs and agencies operate efficiently and effectively. This should be the standard of good government under any circumstance, but especially when the country faces a significant jobs deficit and a serious fiscal crisis. Our farmers, workers, and taxpayers deserve nothing less. And that is why we are here today. This hearing provides us with an opportunity to examine whether an important program is adequately meeting the demands of the nation’s farms.
Each year, agricultural employers across the country petition the U.S. Department of Labor for thousands of seasonal guest workers. Since 1986, the H-2A visa program has provided these employers a legal avenue to hire the workers they need. An employer’s petition must pass two tests intended to protect American workers: First, the employer must demonstrate there is an insufficient number of U.S. workers available to perform the work as needed. Second, the employer must attest that employing guest workers will not adversely affect U.S. workers. If the department denies an employer’s petition, that employer may appeal the decision to an Administrative Law Judge.
This is a program that has proven invaluable to employers. One farmer in my Michigan district described the program as “critical” to hiring the workers necessary for success. However, despite the importance of the program, it has long been plagued by a number of challenges that stretch across party lines.
In 2008, the Bush administration finalized a proposal intended to streamline the program for employers and strengthen protections for workers. Yet in the early months of the Obama administration, these new policies were suspended, and last year a new set of rules were adopted. I recognize that a change of administrations can usher in new policies and priorities. But those changes should improve the support and services the American people rely upon, not undermine their success.
Unfortunately, the facts suggest this may not be the case for the H-2A visa program. Since the new policies were enacted, the frequency of disapprovals for employers’ petitions has increased significantly and the number of appeals filed before an Administrative Law Judge has risen dramatically. This year, it is estimated more than 700 appeals will be filed. To put this estimate into perspective, only 158 appeals were requested last year.
Is the department trying to root out bureaucratic delay, or is it administering an overly burdensome program that provides little benefit to employers? In an effort to answer the question, Madam Assistant Secretary, we look forward to receiving your testimony. This program is an important piece of our effort to ensure a strong, legal workforce. We hope you will take this opportunity to assure the nation’s agricultural employers that you remain committed to administering an effective and efficient H-2A visa program.
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