Pennsylvania congressman aims to expand immigrant worker program to dairy farms
A Pennsylvania congressman wants to expand a visa program originally designed for seasonal farm workers so that struggling dairy farms can better meet their labor needs.
Currently, dairy farmers can’t use the H-2A temporary and seasonal foreign agricultural workforce program because dairy farming is not considered seasonal.
U.S. Rep. John Joyce, R-Chambersburg, in what he described as a small change to the H-2A program, has introduced a bill that would allow dairy farmers to hire more temporary foreign-born workers.
The bipartisan bill, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-N.Y., would provide temporary dairy workers from outside the United States a three-year initial period of admission, with additional three-year extensions, Joyce said.
“It is clear that one of the reasons our dairy farmers in Pennsylvania’s 13th District are struggling is because they are lacking the manpower that they need to produce their goods and get them to market,” Joyce said. “Milk production in our country relies heavily on our migrant workers, and for far too long Congress has harmed the dairy industry by failing to fix our broken immigration system.”
A study by Texas A&M University found more than half of the U.S. dairy industry’s workforce is made up of foreign-born workers.
The Immigration and Nationality Act permits the entrance of temporary, non-immigrant workers to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature. Any employer using H-2A workers must have initially attempted to find U.S. workers to fill those jobs. Under current law, dairy workers cannot receive H-2A visas because the industry is not considered seasonal, Joyce said.
“This small change to the H-2A visa classification will come as welcome news to our dairy farmers and will give them the flexibility that they need to be more efficient and profitable,” Joyce said.
Derry Township dairy farmer Rick Ebert, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said the farm bureau supports Joyce’s legislation but would also like to see mushroom farms included. The 13th Congressional District includes Derry Township and other communities in eastern Westmoreland County.
Ebert said he doesn’t use foreign workers on his farm, but he knows a lot of dairy farmers who do.
“It’s a big part of the dairy industry right now,” he said. “A lot of the larger herds — 150 cows or more — are using immigrant labor because they just can’t find people to work.”
Ebert said the H-2A visa program was designed mainly for seasonal workers who work on fruit and vegetable farms from spring through the fall. Dairy farmers would benefit from adjustments to the program, he said.
“The dairy industry is year-round, so we’re looking for some fixes there to allow workers to stay for three years,” he said. “When you train a worker for milking cows, you like to keep that worker instead of having to retrain somebody new all the time.”
In 2017, however, the National Milk Producers Federation said solving the labor shortage in the dairy industry will require more than tweaking the H-2A program.
The NMPF proposed a solution based on providing a guest-worker program that ensures the continued availability of immigrant labor and permitting those currently employed to earn the right to work in the United States legally, regardless of their legal status.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .