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December 12, 2008   Email to Friend 

Darryal Ray
(334) 613-4187
December 12, 2008

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Bush administration issued changes to the nation's agricultural guest worker program Thursday. Provisions to streamline the guest worker application process, revise the way wages are calculated and modify requirements for demonstrating that a labor shortage cannot be filled with U.S. workers are included.

The Department of Labor (DOL) said the final rules on the H-2A program would be published in the Federal Register Dec. 18, which means they'd take effect two days before Barack Obama is sworn in as president Jan. 20. About 75,000 foreign guest workers obtain visas annually under the H-2A program.

The H-2A temporary agricultural program establishes a means for agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature.

In the final rule, DOL said it would use a market-based wage and maintain the existing fee structure. The American Farm Bureau Federation had strongly advocated for both provisions, arguing that by keeping the program cost-effective it would attract more growers. DOL, however, failed to adopt other AFBF-advocated reforms, including opening H-2A to dairy producers and allowing growers to use housing vouchers.

The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Citizenship and Immigration Services also issued a final rule that will streamline the hiring process of temporary and seasonal agricultural workers. The DHS final rule supplements the reforms of the H-2A program included in the DOL final rule. The DHS rule is expected to be published in the Federal Register soon.

Paul Schlegel, American Farm Bureau Federation public policy director, said that while on balance the changes represent improvements to the existing rules, legislation is still necessary to provide comprehensive relief to agriculture's labor situation.

"While we agree with AFBF's analysis that it's a step in the right direction, we have other concerns that have not been addressed," said Keith Gray, director of National Affairs for the Alabama Farmers Federation. "Alabama has historically had low participation in H2A because of burdensome regulations, as well as concerns over an adverse wage rate that farmers have had to pay H2A workers. That continues to be a concern. So, this news means the glass is half full, but we need to go further."

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