Labor challenges will get tougher, not easier. That was the message from the opening session of the Sustainable Ag Expo in San Luis Obispo. Agricultural and resource economics expert Dr. Philip Martin was brought back by popular demand for the twelfth year of the event to talk about current labor issues.
Martin used the theme ‘back to the future’ last year when comparing the H2A program to the Bracero program in the 1940’s. He continued that message this year as he showed attendees that H2A program usage continues to grow. Martin said H2A agricultural workers have risen to around 200,000. “Why is that number important? Because it’s almost half of where the Bracero program was at its peak of 450,000 workers,” he said.
Housing remains the biggest hindrance to the adoption of H2A workers. Building new housing under California requirements can be cumbersome, and many areas that need the labor have very little housing available. Martin added that those areas are also expensive and labor issues will always be higher in areas with a higher cost of living.
Attendees had several questions for Martin, including his thoughts on the newly proposed H2C program that wouldn’t require employers to supply housing for immigrant labor. “First of all, this is nothing new. They have been trying to pass a program like this for 17 years. I worked with politicians on the first attempt in 1984,” Martin said. He added that the program is not likely to pass because of the additional risks and the Congressman sponsoring the bill is leaving office in December.
Martin also said that California is set for an interesting experiment. The minimum wage has historically hovered around half of the average hourly salary in the state. In 2022, the minimum wage is expected to be about 70 percent of the average hourly rate. Martin said he is unsure how that will affect these issues.
California agriculture remains dependant on labor contractors, and Martin said employees need to weather the storm anyway they can. He again suggested the 4-S technique to keep current workers happy.