Fighting for the rights of agriculture workers

WASHINGTON, D.C. – President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE), Michael Marsh, fights for the rights of agricultural workers daily in Washington D.C.

Marsh, a Lingle native, grew up here and played basketball at Eastern Wyoming College (EWC), before transferring to the University of Wyoming where he ran track and earned his bachelor’s degree in History and Accounting.

“This is the greatest place on the face of the earth to grow up,” Marsh said. “You’ve got people with strong values, a good moral compass, and they work hard. It’s very hard working in agriculture.”

Marsh spent his time growing up working on farms around the Goshen County area and it helped him to gain an understanding of the things agriculture workers deal with.

Before working professionally in agriculture, after college, Marsh got his start investigating fraud as an accountant. He worked for Fred Lockwood & Co. in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where he started to investigate various fraud cases.

Marsh got his first job working in agriculture in 1992 when he became the Director of Finance at the Almond Board of California. He worked there for about seven years before becoming the CEO of Western United Dairymen for 15 years. Marsh has been the President and CEO for NCAE since October of 2017.

Some of the issues that Marsh has worked on since starting at the NCAE have been immigration reform, labor issues and farm workforce modernization.

A lot of the work Marsh has been dealing with lately since the beginning of the pandemic has been with the H-2A Temporary Visa Program.

The H-2A Temporary Visa Program allows agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the United States to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature. 

“There’s an endemic shortage of agricultural labor in the United States,” Marsh said. “We’ve been able to augment that labor force by utilizing the temporary H-2A program.”

Farmers who participate in the program are required to provide transportation to and from the United States, the visa cost, recruiting the workers, providing them with three meals a day and housing.

Part of the issue is that domestic workers are much less likely to take those temporary agricultural jobs. According to Marsh, there’s about 2.4 million agricultural workers and about 200,000 of those are from the H-2A Program, which leaves about 2.2 million jobs that need to be filled by domestic workers.

Marsh said at the beginning of the pandemic, the government decided to halt the H-2B Visa Program, which is for non-agricultural temporary foreign workers, but they kept the H-2A Program in place because of the essential need for agriculture.

“On the H-2A Program for agriculture, they are essential workers,” Marsh said. “We have to make sure that people have food.”

Before farmers can hire workers under the H-2A program they must attempt to hire domestic workers instead. Only after failing to hire enough domestic workers can, they hire workers under the H-2A program.

The jobs must be posted to state workforce agencies and then those agencies will refer potential workers to farmers to hire. Marsh said his company sent out surveys to various workforce agencies in each state to determine how many people were willing and able to take the agricultural jobs.

“When we got our surveys back from March 1st of 2020 to May 15, out of about 200,000 jobs, we had about 26 of the 50 states respond, we had 337 applicants for 200,000 jobs,” Marsh said. “It’s really challenging and it’s a seasonal job.”

Marsh spoke about meeting with various political leaders who were in favor of getting rid of the H-2A Program during the pandemic so they could be filled by domestic workers instead. He would bring up the responses from the surveys sent out by NCAE to show that domestic workers weren’t going to be enough to fill the needed 200,000 openings to keep farms operational and producing goods.

One of the idea’s brought up in a meeting with congress members and senators in Arkansas was the idea of using prisoners from non-violent early release programs to help augment the loss from domestic workers applying for these jobs. That idea brought up more issues than it would’ve solved.

A farmer on the call brought up the question about how that would work with the Food Safety and Modernization Act protocol, to ensure that farmers are employing people with good moral character in order to protect the food supply.

Questions like this were just some of the issues Marsh has been faced with while dealing with agricultural employment issues throughout the pandemic. He said they were eventually able to resolve that issue and kept the food supply intact.

Another issue that came up for farmers and their workers was the issue of being able to get enough PPE to ensure the safety of all their employees. They would go to Marsh and tell him they were having difficulties securing enough because it was in such high demand all across the country.

“If you had a COVID outbreak with the workers in a housing unit, then you’ve got a real problem,” Marsh said. “Fortunately, agricultural employers stepped up to the plate and were really innovative.”

One of the other issues farmers faced were how they were going to be able to safely house their employers. Every state had their own regulations regarding housing requirements during COVID. Some states like California and Washington required that the workers would not be able to be housed in a facility with bunk beds.

There was also a challenge with communicating to the workers on the new safety protocols that would be in place to keep them safe. Having to ensure six feet of social distancing and constantly sanitizing the buses used to bring workers out to the fields.

“Today we’re much better prepared,” Marsh said. “We spent a lot of time working with farmers on developing plans for COVID mitigation using CDC guidelines and educating people about what their requirements were and sharing ideas to protect the agricultural workforce.”

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has yet to require that workers are to be vaccinated before coming to the states to work. They did have a program in place where workers would be tested and then would quarantine the ones who tested positive for the two-week requirement and then would send them to their work destination.

Marsh said they have been working with the CDC and have set up vaccination clinics for workers before they are able to go to the farms for work. States like California and Washington have allowed some of the regulations in place to return back to a sense of normalcy for the workers who decide to get vaccinated.

“What was amazing to me, and I think to the CDC, was the acceptance rate because of course the vaccines aren’t widely available outside the United States,” Marsh said. “You had over 90% vaccination rates with some of these crews. You had some hesitancy initially, but once you had bilingual health care professionals explain things, the hesitancy almost went completely away.”

Farmers are now able to return to a sense of normal for the workers who have been vaccinated, but they must separate the ones who have yet to receive the vaccine to ensure the safety of their workforce.

While a lot of the work Marsh does is with the H-2A, he is also concerned with domestic workers to get out to farms and work in agriculture. Marsh said about half of the domestic workforce is unauthorized and he spends a lot of time working on being able to get those workers to be able to work at the farms.

“How do we get some sort of legalized status for those folks?” Marsh asked. “We passed the farm workforce modernization act and essentially the same bill in March of this year, that would have, under title one, an opportunity for farm workers who are unauthorized, continue to work in agriculture for a period of time and pay a penalty, could over a period of time of 4-8 years could get to a legal status.”

Another area of concern for Marsh and the NCAE is keeping our food supply safe and sufficient. Marsh said 50% of the fresh fruit comes from outside our borders and about one third of the fresh vegetables. The big reason for that is cheaper labor costs in other countries where it makes more sense economically to just pay to ship the food in, than it does to pay workers in the United States.

By bringing in fruits and vegetables from other countries, it not only hurts farmers in the United States, but it also puts our food supply at a risk.

“If we’re not successful at keeping the American farmers sustainable, then we will have to continue to import some of our food,” Marsh said. “And that impedes our national security, that’s a threat.”


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