WCMA Notes: Champion Immigration Reform as Workforce Solution

Posted By: Rebekah Sweeney Advocacy, WCMA News,

We hear it daily, from members large and small, operating in nearly every state in the nation: they’re struggling to find the workers they need to meet the growing global demand for American dairy products.

That’s in spite of dairy processors offering competitive compensation packages, flexible schedules, and investing in technology and equipment to make work environments more comfortable and physical labor less demanding.

Outstanding career opportunities abound in the U.S. dairy industry today.  So why are so many jobs going unfilled?

Simply put, our nation doesn’t have enough workers.  Right now, there are nearly two available jobs for every American in the labor pool.  And that pool is expected to shrink as Boomers continue to retire.

What’s the solution?  Perhaps there are many.  Studies suggest benefits to diversity and inclusion efforts engaging previously untargeted workers, increased support for childcare and eldercare programs to encourage labor participation, and further investments in automation.  But a long-term workforce growth plan that will truly move the needle must include an expansion of immigration opportunities.

The $753 billion American dairy industry has always relied on immigrants as vital members of its supply chain, from the farm to processing facilities and beyond.  Immigrants hold nearly one in six jobs in this country today, but that won’t be enough in the future.

Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association members recognize the reality of this situation, and they have – for the first time in our organization’s history – taken a public stand to urge immigration reform.

WCMA members support, specifically, the creation of an agricultural guestworker visa program that adds dairy manufacturing, processing, and related supply chain jobs to the list of those eligible for a visa. 

Our members want to see the federal government extend the length of agricultural guestworker visa terms.  They add support for the elimination of “touchback” provisions requiring agricultural guestworkers to return to their home country periodically, disrupting their year-round work in the U.S.  Relatedly, our members want provisions to grant temporary legal status to the spouses and minor children of agricultural guestworkers, so they are not separated from their families when they accept a job here.

WCMA members want to see an expansion of opportunities for agricultural guestworkers to become permanent residents of this country. 

Our processors believe agricultural guestworkers should enjoy at-will employment flexibility that would allow them to accept any agricultural industry employment for the duration of their work authorization period. And support optional employer-provided housing, transportation, and other services to agricultural guestworkers.

Finally, our members deserve strong legal safeguards for acting in good faith to determine an individual’s employment eligibility.

Some of these goals could be achieved before the end of this year.  That starts with the U.S. Senate amending and approving the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, legislation already passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

As it stands now, the bill holds a welcome expansion of immigration opportunities for the farm side of our industry, but not for processors.  If the Senate acts on the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, legislators could extend immigration benefits through our supply chain.  Amendments are assured, anyway, if there is to be a vote.

“If” is a key word because immigration reform in the U.S. has long been stymied by partisan rhetoric.  But, in this lame duck Congressional session, there are real signs of negotiation in the Senate over the bill. It’s an opportunity our industry – and, frankly, any employer concerned about the U.S. labor shortage – should seize.

Join your trade associations in communication with your elected leaders.  Send an email or pick up the phone.  Share the workforce challenges you’re experiencing.  If you employ immigrants, share how they help our industry achieve its essential mission to feed the world.  Share how you welcome them in your business, and how they – along with U.S.-born workers – are helping you to grow your operations. 

Tell your Senator that the time for political hyperbole over immigration is over, and the time for practical, meaningful action is now.

Workforce challenges are, perhaps, the greatest threat to the American dairy industry’s long-term stability and strength.  Let’s make solutions – including immigration reform – our greatest priority.