5 things you need to know about the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA)
In Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, Little Bear Produce had to cut back their acreage because they couldn’t find enough workers to harvest the greens, melons, and onions they’ve farmed since 1984. In Elizabethtown, North Carolina, Blue River Legacy Farms couldn’t find enough local workers to pick their blueberries after over 50 years in operation.
It’s the same story we’ve been hearing for years, from lettuce fields in California’s Salinas Valley to Wisconsin dairies to Washington apple orchards, and it’s not getting any easier. Little Bear Produce, Blue River, and many more are turning to the H-2A guest worker program (which we covered in September) to find the labor that they need. But the best available solutions—like H-2A, or using farm labor contractors—bring their own headaches, costs, and risks.
Finally, some help may be on the horizon in the form of federal legislation: the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA). This bill already passed the House and is now in the hands of the Senate. It could make a meaningful difference for many farmers and workers, but it needs a serious push from growers like you to get it across the finish line.
Here are five things you need to know and one action you can take now:
#1 - Where did this bill come from?
The FWMA is a bipartisan bill. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Dan Newhouse (R-WA) introduced it in 2021, and the legislation passed the House of Representatives with 217 Democratic and 30 Republican votes. It now sits in the Senate, where it needs 60 votes to pass.
#2 - Who supports it?
A wide range of organizations and folks from across the political spectrum support passage of the FWMA. This includes farmworker and immigration advocacy groups like Farmworker Justice; farmers and industry leaders from around the country like Western Growers, the U.S. Apple Association, the Ohio Dairy Producers Association, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, the U.S. Apple Association, the National Milk Producers Federation, Tyson Foods, and the International Fresh Produce Association; and the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank.
#3 - What’s in the bill?
This is a large and complex piece of legislation, but it covers three main things:
Streamlining and adding flexibility to the H-2A agricultural worker visa program
Creating a path to legal immigration status and eventually citizenship for undocumented farmworkers
Requiring E-Verify employment eligibility screening for agricultural employers but providing undocumented workers pathways to comply
#4 - How would the FWMA help growers and workers?
First, changes to the H-2A program would make it easier for both growers and workers to navigate, reducing costs for growers and increasing the number of employers and workers who can participate.
The current application process is complex and inefficient. The bill would create a single online portal where employers can file all required documents in an effort to streamline and modernize while reducing the administrative costs of hiring H-2A workers.
The FWMA would create 20,000 year-round visas each year, and potentially more in the future, creating a new labor pool for year-round farmers who can’t make use of the seasonal visas currently offered.
H-2A visas would be extended to 3-years, meaning workers would not need new visas every season when returning to do the same job.
One challenge for growers is the requirement to provide housing for H-2A workers. The bill also includes funding to help growers with housing costs.
Under the updated program, H-2A workers would have 45 days to seek new employment when their contract ends, meaning visa-holders could find work on a new farm when the season ends at their previous job without requiring a new visa application.
Second, the FWMA adds new protections for H-2A workers.
Right now, H-2A workers whose employers withhold pay or pay less than the wages agreed on in the contract are prohibited from filing suit in federal court. The FWMA would give H-2A workers the same rights as other farmworkers to sue employers who don’t honor the terms of their employment.
The bill requires H-2A employers to provide heat stress protections like shade, water, training, and emergency response plans—addressing one of the most common causes of illness and death for farmworkers.
Foreign labor recruiters, for example, recruiters based in Mexico who find workers for U.S. farms, would need to register with the U.S. government, creating much-needed oversight to identify and weed out recruiters who defraud workers by charging illegal fees and misrepresenting terms of employment. This would in turn create a national registry of registered and debarred recruiters, esablishing a great resource for farms looking for responsible partners.
Third, the FWMA creates a pathway to legal status for undocumented farmworkers and their families—without whom, our nation's agricultural system would crumble.
Workers who meet certain requirements—including at least 180 days of farm work over the prior two years and passing a background check—could apply for “Certified Agricultural Worker” status, giving them, their spouse, and their children legal authorization to live and work in the U.S., and the ability to travel outside the country and return.
The bill requires at least 100 days of employment in agriculture per year to maintain this status.
After a waiting period of 4-8 years, these workers and family members could apply for legal permanent residency, a “green card,” and eventually citizenship.
Lastly, what’s up with the E-Verify provision?
The bill would require agricultural employers to use E-Verify, a federal program that lets companies verify workers’ employment eligibility online. This requirement only kicks in once the system is up and running. For undocumented farm workers, they will need to apply for Certified Agricultural Worker (CAW) status and would then be eligible for employment in E-Verify.
#5 - Does this bill really have a chance?
The FWMA passed the house last year but is currently stuck in the Senate. It has bipartisan support, but not enough Republicans have signed on to put it over the 60-votes needed to pass. While many state and local farm lobby groups are behind the bill, the powerful American Farm Bureau Federation is against it for now—though this could change with enough pressure from growers.
Latest reports from Washington are that the best chance for the bill to move forward will be in the lame-duck session after the November election— but this will require a serious push from farmers across the nation.
What can I do to help?
Call your senators and urge them to support this bill. Call now, and keep calling after the election when the bill has the best chance of moving forward.
To find your senators’ phone numbers, click the button below, and select your state from the drop-down menu at the top.