Hagan’s farmworker amendment: Still objectionable

On Friday I told you about Senator Kay Hagan’s amendment to the big health care reform bill that would, in effect, exclude most farmworkers from coverage. As reported on Friday night, Hagan’s office called to complain about the post — arguing that I was too harsh in my characterizations of the bill. Since that time, I have dug a little deeper. Here’s what I found:

A closer look at the amendment reveals that it is, essentially, a blanket exclusion of agricultural employers from the “employer mandate” provision of the Affordable Health Choices Act.  In fact, it states that “temporary and seasonal agricultural workers….shall not be treated as employees for the purposes of determining the size of an employer.” 

Hagan’s staffer said that all small businesses under 25 employees are excluded from the employer mandate provisions of the bill, and that the rationale for the amendment excluding agricultural employers of temporary workers was to protect employers who might only “briefly” have more than 25 employees from having to pay a penalty if they fail to provide health insurance.  However, her amendment does not protect employers of any other industry who might “briefly” take on more than 25 employees, so the short duration of the workers’ employment could not have been the only consideration in putting forth this amendment. 

And although the amendment only excludes agricultural employers of “temporary” workers, anyone who works with farmworkers knows that “temporary” workers can remain anywhere from a few months to nine, ten, or eleven months of the year.  And the work they do during those months—planting, harvesting, and packing—is what allows the employer to bring in 100% of his revenue for the year. True small farmers will never exceed 25 employees and will always remain within the same protections that cover other small business owners. This amendment will only end up protecting the large agricultural operations that bring in large crews of workers during the growing season

The amendment says, at its essence, that we consider it an offense worth punishing if any other type of large employer fails to provide health insurance coverage to its employees. But if a large agricultural employer does it, well, we just can’t be expected to punish those folks. The amendment (like so many workplace-related laws in decades past) treats farmworkers as “lesser” employees worthy of fewer workplace protections, and treats agricultural employers as “exceptional”—not worthy of punishment when they fail to provide the same basic workplace protections that other employers are required to provide. 

The bottom line: The amendment is still a major disappointment. Its main effect is to assure that some of our most vulnerable unisured workers will remain that way. Senator Hagan could still do a lot better.

6 Comments

  1. Chase Foster

    July 13, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    Very good analysis and thanks for your great work uncovering this!

    Unfortunately Sen. Kay Hagan is not as different from her Jim Crow-era Democratic forbears as she should be. She’s very willing to do favors for wealthy agri-business at the expense of the most vulnerable workers.

    Though there is a difference. To her credit, Sen. Hagan seems willing to adjust when there’s enough public pressure. We helped her realize that a public health option was something that she had to support. Let’s do the same with this and demand that she withdraw her amendment.

  2. Bill

    July 13, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    Sorry, but you guys are definitely wrong on this issue. Treating agricultural employers differently than other employers for policy purposes is not only justified, but has also been standard practice in every advanced economy for decades. Farming is, by DEFINITION, a seasonal business. Agricultural employers need to hire a lot of farmworkers for the harvest, but after the harvest, there’s almost no work to be done until the growing season comes around again. It literally defies logic to suggest that a significant portion of farmworkers aren’t “temporary and seasonal” — do you deny that there are four seasons in a year? I should hope not.

    Why do you think the Labor Department’s big monthly employment report is called “NONFARM payrolls”? Even the Wikipedia entry for nonfarm payrolls understands that the farming industry is fundamentally different: “The farming industry is not included because of its seasonal hiring which would distort the number around harvest times (as farms add workers and then release them after the harvest is complete).”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonfarm_payrolls

    And when Hagan’s aide explained this to you, your only counterargument was to inexplicably deny that farmworkers are actually “temporary and seasonal.” That’s just the height of silliness — it essentially amounts to a claim that farming isn’t a seasonal business.

    A farmer that employs, say, 12 people for 10 months of the year, but hires an additional 40-50 workers when the harvest comes around, is completely different from a standard 60-person (year-round) business. It would be fundamentally bad policy-making to lump them together. Not everything is an insidious, mean-spirited plot. Policy-making in the real world is complex, and requires an ability to appreciate nuance.

    Clearly, the Progressive Pulse doesn’t want to admit that it jumped the gun in criticizing Sen. Hagan for something it didn’t fully understand. But digging in when you’re so obviously wrong is just petty, and is a sign of intellectual immaturity.

    You’re better than that.

    Bill

  3. Kate

    July 14, 2009 at 10:22 am

    Bill, I did not in my post, nor in my conversation with Sen. Hagan’s staffer, ever deny that farmworkers may be temporary and seasonal. Of course they are, and of course, in most temperate climates, they do not remain on the farm for 12 months of the year. My point is that when they ARE on the farm (whether it be two or three months, or in my experience with many temporary farmworkers, nine, ten, or eleven months of the year), they are doing the work that helps the farmer to bring in 100% of his revenue. They are not merely ancillary to the business.

    The point is that, because their employees do not remain on the farm for 12 months of the year, agricultural employers have consistently used this as an excuse for why they should not have to follow the same workplace laws that other employers are required to follow. I do not agree with that rationale. And, as I stated in my post, Sen. Hagan makes no exception for the retail store, the manufacturer, or any other business that might temporarily take on more than 25 employees to deal with a holiday rush or a slew of new contracts. Why are the agricultural employers excluded and not those employers from other industries?

  4. Clermont

    July 14, 2009 at 11:39 am

    I have to take issue with Bill’s comment above: “Treating agricultural employers differently than other employers for policy purposes is not only justified, but has also been standard practice in every advanced economy for decades.”

    Bill is correct that we’ve treated agricultural employers differently for decades. But, as both Kate and Chase have pointed out, that is a practice that we as a country and an “advanced economy” should be ashamed of. We give farmers all kinds of exemptions rather than giving greater protection to the vulnerable workers that work those farms. In fact, many people will argue that it is because we treated that industry differently and allowed them to own their labor for decades that we are a wealthy nation today. Then, when free labor was no longer an option we adopted laws to help farmers adapt to increased labor costs and to ensure that the freed slaves working their fields weren’t treated as equals to laborers in every other industry. I don’t want my Senator (or her staffers) using our racist history as a justification for excluding farmworkers from health coverage today- even if we’ve tolerated it as standard practice for a long time.

    Speaking of laws that create exceptions for farmworkers- there are plenty of examples of ways Hagan could have provided a smaller loophole for farmers in this bill other than by refusing to count farmworkers as employees. Maybe the exemption should follow the “standard practice” from the 18th and 19th centuries and count each temporary or seasonal farmworker as 3/5 of a person. Or she could have proposed the 500 man-day exemption that the Fair Labor Standads Act and Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act already use to limit protections for farmworkers and lower farmowner’s labor costs. Of course, I think the 500 man-day exemption should be abolished, but at least it’s better than what Hagan is proposing.

  5. T. Lee

    July 14, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Although a gallant thought to include temp/seasonal farmworkers as employees for health insurance benefits, at this time, it is, as the lawyers say, impractical (which translates downright close to impossible). The logistics of such a task hurt my head just thinking about it. First, most insurance companies I’ve talked to will not insure temp or parttime workers. Someone would have to “invent” an insurance program and proceedures for insuring a population who is constantly moving around. Do not confuse “argicultural worker” with “migrant and seasonal agricultural worker”. Also, do we insure undocumented workers, too? There seems to me to be an awful lot of “snags”/ questions to be answered before leaping in to this. Our operation would come under the more than 25 employees (which, by the way we do insure), but 85-100 persons (depending on turn-over) are employed for approximately eight (8) weeks only. We are a family-owned agricultural business, we are not a “big corporation-owned” business…. financially, this would debilitate us.
    And as you state…100% percent of the farms income (this is also arguable) relate to these temporary workers— for shame, it is more complex than that—– the farmer receives very little of the food dollar as it is. Increasing costs in every arena— try absorbing a $2.00 per hour increase in minimum wage in a six (6) month period of time as we did in PA, not to mention increases in cost of fuel, energy,goods and services, etc.- make for little or no profit as it is. Go on America, pile some more on- the almighty, all-knowing legislature and those of you who support all things for all people, regardless, come up with another laudable idea, but with absolutely no idea of the repercussions– and, do you care?

    One last thing- prepare for higher-priced food, little of which will be produced in America, because there will be no more small farmers. Nor can it be regulated as to whether it is a safe food source when it is produced off-shore. I’m just glad I can farm and grow my own food- I will not go hungry, unless, of course, someone decides my land should no longer be mine.

    p.s. PA has a migrant health program for temporary and seasonal farmworkers- we already pay for it— if they would just use it.

  6. Lester

    July 15, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Clermont-I agree with you on your objections to Bill’s comment. That is exactly the type of argument that we, as a progressive people want to avoid. One could fill in the blanks and say, “Not letting Black people and women vote is not only justified, but has also been standard practice in this country for decades.”
    I realize that giving temporary farm workers insurance can be costly, and without the right legislation, can cripple farm owners. However, simply using them for revenue without protection is immoral, money-grubbing, and callous.
    We need real change. And our newly elected officials (as so often happens after all the promises are made and thevotes are cast) are proving to be getting stuck in the mire of garbage that has a crippling effect upon progressive action. Shame. Such high hopes we had…..