Newhouse, farm leaders push for federal farm labor modernization legislation before year’s end

The U.S. Senate will have just weeks to pass the Farm Labor Modernization Act when it reconvenes Nov. 14 after the midterm elections. If it doesn’t pass before the end of the year, lawmakers will have to start over in the next session of Congress.

At a press conference in Yakima this week, U.S. Representative Dan Newhouse, a Republican from Sunnyside, called on the Senate to pass the bill. Newhouse was joined by supporters of the local agricultural industry and stressed the need for agricultural labor, the legal status of foreign workers and reform.

“We have already passed the Farm Labor Modernization Act through the House of Representatives. He sits in the Senate right now,” Newhouse said. “Stop waiting and start taking action.”

The Farm Labor Modernization Act would reform the H-2A program, which allows employers to apply for seasonal foreign farm labor. Under the proposed legislation, workers could stay in the United States for up to 5½ years and work for multiple employers.

After working in agriculture, these workers would have a path to legal permanent residency and, after that, citizenship. The bill passed with bipartisan support in the House of Representatives.

Newhouse said legal status is important, adding it could protect workers from abuse and act as immigration reform.

“It will allow them a legal process to do that, to go home and come back next year, legally,” Newhouse said. “That, in itself, provides these precious people we need with the honor and respect they deserve.”

Kristen Kershaw of Superfresh Growers on Wednesday highlighted the need for these workers. She said labor shortages have reduced production while increasing labor costs. Jason Sheehan, a Sunnyside dairy farmer, said the need for workers is ongoing and it could affect farmers’ ability to produce food.

“The labor shortage is huge and it’s real and it hasn’t been resolved for a long time,” Sheehan said.

Kershaw added that the H-2A program has helped maintain a reliable workforce, but it’s expensive to use the program. Kershaw feared that higher costs would lead to more consolidation and less local ownership in agriculture.

Tony Freytag of Crunchpack, a fruit packer in Cashmere, agreed. He said farmers and packers could be forced to sell their businesses to bigger corporations. Freytag called on Washington senators and the American Farm Bureau to take action.

“We will start all over again, depending on what happens. We will start from scratch when this Congress, this session, ends. It’s very scary,” Freytag said, commenting on the possibility that the legislation may not pass.

Supporters of the bill include a wide variety of business, grower and labor groups, including United Farmworkers, the US Chamber of Commerce and the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.

Newhouse’s opponent, Democrat Doug White of Yakima, opposed the bill, saying the path to citizenship is “modern-day indentured servitude” and that more needs to be done to reform the immigration.

The farmworker group Familias Unidas por la Justicia recently held a statewide tour to campaign against the bill. FUJ leaders have argued that the bill’s journey to citizenship and legal residency is taking too long and that the bill could reduce wages.

Despite the small window of opportunity after the midterm elections and busy congressional session ahead, Newhouse remains optimistic.

“There are a growing number of senators who recognize the urgency of the agriculture industry. I am very optimistic. We have until the end of the year,” Newhouse said. “If we continue to raise our voices, to make sure people understand the urgency of the situation, we have a great chance of being able to pass this into law.”

Michael A. Bynum