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.