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Immigration reform tops concerns of California Grape & Tree Fruit League

“From our perspective, there is no more important issue for all growers, but particularly for growers of table grapes,” than immigration reform, because table grape production is “so labor intensive,” said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League, in an interview with The Produce News.

It was a timely issue, as the senate had recently approved a comprehensive immigration reform bill and the House of Representatives was currently addressing the issue. In fact, “today the Republican house members are meeting to talk about immigration reform,” Bedwell said.

While he did not expect the House Republicans to go in lock step with the Senate bill, he was hoping that the House would take some action, and that it would do so soon. “We need the House of Representatives to produce a bill that can be conferenced with the Senate version that has already passed,” he said.

The need for a legal and stable work force is “still at the top of the list” for grape growers and many others in agriculture, Bedwell said. “We will probably know by tomorrow if the Republicans are going to understand the need for that. I think we are going to see with the next three weeks some action out of the House of Representatives … before they go on recess in August.”

However, the Republican caucus on immigration did not lead to immediate action, and the House Republican leadership said subsequently that probably nothing would be done until after the August recess. Even then, it is likely to be a step-by-step approach rather than a single comprehensive bill.

“I think a piecemeal approach is not the preferred route, certainly for those of us in agriculture,” Bedwell said.

He said he expected to have, by the end of July, “a good idea what the chances of success are for immigration reform this year, and I am afraid if we don’t do it this year, it is going to be a considerable time before we are able to address it properly again.”

The tightening labor supply was “beginning to impact folks in the table grape industry,” Bedwell said. There are concerns “as we head into the prime harvest period” with regard to what “a potential labor shortage may do to the flow and availability of grapes. So far, most growers “think we are okay” for this season, “but the anxiety level has certainly increased, so that is number one on our list.”

At the state level, “our concerns for table grape growers again revolve around labor,” but in terms of potential increased regulatory costs, rather than availability, Bedwell said. Potential labor shortages have already caused the cost of agricultural labor to rise, and now there is the potential for more regulations, which will add further costs.

“One that we are concerned about in particular” is a bill that would require any worker who is being paid piece-rate to get paid separately at their average wage rate for breaks such as “preventive recovery periods to prevent heat illness.” Currently, the law requires that employers must allow workers to take breaks but the workers are not compelled to take them and some choose not to. “Many people get in a rhythm and want to keep working,” he said. Currently, workers who take breaks are paid at least minimum wage for those breaks.

The league is concerned about heat related illness and has “made a point of trying to educate not only our members but everyone involved that preventing heat related illness is something that can be accomplished,” he said. Regulations already in place have been effective at greatly reducing incidences of heat related illness, and proposed regulations, though “well-intended,” will not necessarily bring about further improvements. They will however, increase growers’ labor costs.

Water issues continue to be a concern for league members, Bedwell said. “We’ve heard that people on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley should count on a zero allocation from the federal government next year.” While table grape growers generally have access to well water, “what it has meant is that table grape growers are pumping more water from the underground aquifers,” which increases energy costs and also lowers the aquifers.

Westside water cuts are largely a consequence of environmentally driven restrictions on pumping water out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. A proposed plan to convey water from northern California through or around the delta “has, obviously, an appeal” for table grape growers, Bedwell said.

Another concern is increased employer health care costs under the Affordable Health Care Act. While most grape growers and shippers would probably welcome the recently announced delay in implementation of the employer mandate provisions of the act, said Bedwell, “still the understanding of how this may impact them is yet to be determined.”