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Guestworker regulations challenged by Farm Bureau

The American Farm Bureau Federation filed a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent new H-2A rules from going into effect.

The federal H-2A program allows agricultural employers to obtain visas for seasonal workers if there are insufficient domestic workers. Because the United States faces an ongoing shortage of readily available domestic labor, the H-2A program is considered a necessary tool for farmers to continue to grow and harvest food on U.S. soil.

A federal judge ruled in March 2009 that the Obama administration could not merely invalidate H-2A rules that were adopted under former President George Bush. As a result, the Secretary of Labor rushed new H-2A regulations into place.

The Farm Bureau believes that the Administrative Procedures Act, Congressional Review Act and Regulatory Flexibility Act were violated in an effort to expedite the normal process for rule making.

In Washington state, approximately 60,000 seasonal workers are needed to harvest apples, cherries, berries, peaches and many other crops. The season typically lasts six months and the hours of employment vary greatly from week to week. So does the location. As such, the typical income and work schedule of a farm worker is unpredictable.

Farm owners want a legal and stable workforce. They want the same skilled workers year after year working on their farms, according to the Farm Bureau. Pursuing workers, they say, through the H-2A program is and ought to be a viable solution available for labor-intensive agriculture.

Contrary to public perception, employers using the H-2A program are required to provide high wages, housing and travel benefits for their workers.

The workers who enter our country via the H-2A program do so legally, and their presence here greatly benefits all of agriculture and our overall economy. A typical seasonal worker who participates in the apple harvest picks approximately 150 tons of apples during the two-month season and helps spawn jobs in processing, transportation and international trade.

Making the already cumbersome H-2A program more difficult for employers to use hurts our economy by restricting the labor supply and thus one of the components of the job multiplier effect, says the Farm Bureau.

"The labor shortage we face in agriculture is very real and is only going to get worse if we don't address it properly through congressional action," said Washington Farm Bureau President Steve Appel. "People are under the false impression that the high unemployment rate is now allowing farmers to get the workers that they need. This is simply not the case."

If these rules are allowed to stand, farmers will be unable to attract sufficient workers, and Americans will be forced to rely more heavily on fruits, vegetables and other commodities imported from other countries, said Appel.

In order to produce affordable, safe food, farmers need access to a legal and stable workforce. Otherwise, farmers will replace labor-intensive crops with those that can be mechanically harvested, due to a lack of workers, say officials with the Farm Bureau.

Appel said the solution offered by the Obama administration's final rule on the H-2A foreign worker program only makes an already bad situation worse. These rules are going to make it especially hard for family-owned farms and other small family-owned businesses, the backbone of our state's economy, to stay afloat.

The lawsuit requests the issuance of a temporary restraining order. A hearing date has not been set.

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