Long Island farmers complained to Rep. Lee Zeldin on Saturday about an immigration system that some said hampers their efforts to get enough legal labor to work their crops, and an impending $15-an-hour state minimum wage they worry will dramatically increase their costs.
Zeldin (R-Shirley) met with about 20 farmers over coffee and bagels in a conference room at the Calverton offices of the Long Island Farm Bureau.
Immigration was the top topic at the meeting, with farmers expressing frustration over the lack of progress on immigration reform — including implementing a guest-worker program — and about the red tape in the H-2A visa program for seasonal immigrant workers.
Comprehensive immigration reform proposals failed under presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and analysts see almost no chance of a measure passing this year.
Flower farmer Bill Tillotson, 65, of Sagaponack, said he gave up on the H-2A visa program because of its costs and a bureaucratic inefficiency that sometimes doesn’t supply workers until weeks into the growing season.
Zeldin said the problem with H-2A is the way it’s being administered, rather than the law itself. He said after the meeting that he has concerns that a guest worker program would take away American jobs, and said that if H-2A were more efficient, Long Island farmers wouldn’t need a guest worker program.
But Farm Bureau public policy director Jessica Anson said after the meeting that, even if H-2A were more efficient and workers arrived on farms on time, it would still be too expensive for many farmers. Some type of immigration reform with a guest worker program is needed, she said.
The $15 minimum wage, which is part of a budget that both legislative chambers approved and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he will sign, would go into effect on Long Island at the end of 2021.
Zeldin said even though the federal government can’t quash the state wage hike, it could help Long Island farmers by reducing regulations.
“There are overreaching regulations harming agriculture unnecessarily,” he said.