As it turns out, the federal government’s H-2A guest worker rules established in 1986 remain a work in progress.
The program facilitates the hiring of foreign workers, and maintains standards for pay, housing and the distribution of labor.
The problem is the one-size-fits all approach really doesn’t fit everyone. The program is based on the needs of agriculture, which as every Central Coast resident knows is the very substantial backbone of our local economy.
For one thing, any influx of foreign workers, even on a seasonal basis, puts a lot of strain on the local housing supply, which is why the city of Santa Maria is lobbying the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors to approve more farmworker housing in unincorporated areas where the vast majority of agriculture operations occur.
Housing is a major problem for most Central Coast communities, a situation not likely to change anytime soon because of pressures on the local real estate market. Another development is that the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees H-2A, has proposed significant changes in the program’s rules, the goal being to streamline the process.
It’s fairly evident that changes are needed. The California Farm Bureau surveyed more than 1,000 farmers earlier this year, and more than half said they were unable to fill their worker requirements in the previous five years.
Not having enough workers to get the job done inflicts collateral damage. Many farmers reported decreasing production or abandoning certain crops due to a shortage of workers. It’s not difficult to see these sorts of issues causing more damage, especially to the nation’s food production and delivery systems.
If history is any indication, the rules changes proposed by the Labor Department won’t happen anytime soon. There is a waiting period for public and industry comment, after which the bureaucrats take over to discuss what they’ve heard and learned. That could take years.
Meanwhile, the Santa Maria City Council approved a permanent ordinance setting guidelines for H-2A housing in residential areas, mostly a response to citizen complaints about over-crowding in single-family homes.
Also meanwhile, city officials want the county to facilitate more farmworker housing in rural areas, putting workers in housing close to their jobs. Federal H-2A laws say farmers must provide both housing and transportation to the fields.
There are a lot of moving parts in this issue, and what seems to be lacking is any coordinated effort to better define immigration policy at the national level, and local policies that affect all parties.
It would be best if the rules were made locally, to fit the needs of individual communities. That approach would also be the easiest to accommodate, because leaving any important decisions to congressional lawmakers is futile. Waiting for Congress to act, on almost any issue, is like waiting for a mountain to move.
Maybe Santa Maria sending a letter to the Board of Supervisors, essentially asking for the county’s cooperation, can get the ball rolling on a collaborative approach to the ag worker situation.
Council members asked staff to prepare the letter, which staff did, but it came back excessively wordy. Council members want it shortened, a lot, and more to the point.
All of which underlines our belief that too many interactions between governments are unnecessarily cluttered with too much talk, and too little action.
Even though the H-2A situation has many moving parts, it’s not all that complicated for local residents. Agriculture is this region’s bread and butter, farmers need workers, workers need a place to live while they’re here.