-by Daniel Sheehan, AFOP Executive Director
When the typical person thinks about farm work, most picture someone rising before dawn, working through the day, taking sufficient breaks, and resting comfortably in the evening after a good day’s work. Imagine, though, if that work required toiling in the finger-numbing cold or unrelenting heat and humidity with little or no shade, cold water to drink, or basic facilities to use. Imagine working straight through the day without break because, darn it, you need the money. Imagine needing to have your children exposed to the same hardships by your side because you lack suitable child care, or because have them earn too.
Imagine that you’re doing all of this while at risk from dangerous pesticides, tools, and machinery.
Sadly, that is the very reality facing most individuals employed in agriculture in this country. Many are paid insufficient wages, have few if any benefits, and cannot earn overtime pay or, indeed, have any work security at all. Compounding these are the many barriers farmworkers face, like low-literacy, limited English-language skills, and isolation. Yet, these farmworkers provide the very sustenance our nation lives on; they plant and harvest the crops we eat every day.
Thankfully, for more than 50 years Congress has recognized that given the special circumstances in which they labor, agricultural workers merit a chance to realize new potentials and improve their conditions through the help of the National Farmworker Jobs Program (NFJP). Created by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, NFJP enlists community-service organizations to provide job training and other services to farmworkers, allowing those workers to secure better employment inside or outside agriculture, and win a self- and family-sustaining wage: indeed, to earn their own part in the American Dream.
Preserving this and other farmworker programs, however, is tough work that requires tireless effort sun up to sun down. Some in Washington say the program is no longer necessary, that the mainline job-training programs are sufficient to assist farmworkers, that they have the resources and special knowledge to adequately serve the agricultural laborer population.
Friends, that is simply not the case.
The nation needs a nationally administered program that targets services to this vulnerable population, with the cultural sensitivity and language capacity to maximize worker benefits, and the reach to stick with workers who migrate with the growing season. NFJP grantees do just that day in and day out – with great success. One only needs to look at the statistics the Labor Department collects on it: NFJP is one of the top-performing grant programs in the department’s Employment and Training Administration, continually surpassing performance targets, placing farmworkers into good jobs over 90 percent of time, while seeing massive increases in wages.
Congressional appropriations are key to the continuation of this great work. Here is where we stand at present:
Regular Fiscal Year 2018 Appropriations. Congress included in the recently enacted fiscal year 2018 omnibus spending bill $88 million for NFJP for its program year 2018, beginning July 1, 2018. The fiscal year 2018 amount is a 7.3 percent increase of $6 million over current fiscal year 2017 funding of $82 million. The president had proposed NFJP’s elimination, yet Congress increased its funding, while other programs not targeted for elimination received much smaller increases, or none at all.
Regular Fiscal Year 2019 Appropriations. The president’s fiscal year 2019, once again, zeros out NFJP. AFOP has already submitted its formal request letter and written testimony to the House Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations subcommittee seeking the full authorized amount of $94.2 million. It will do the same for the Senate early next month. During a recent House panel hearing with Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, Ranking Minority Member Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) grilled the secretary on the administration’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget cuts, citing NFJP as an example of a highly effective program that “places farmworkers into jobs over 90 percent of the time and increases wages on average three-fold.” AFOP worked with Representative DeLauro’s subcommittee professional staff to place that comment.
Because the nation’s farmworkers deserve a chance, because they are not machine-like drones working forever in the fields, because – like all human beings – they deserve the chance to strive for a better life: AFOP will continue to fight for them and the programs that so ably serve them.
From sun up, to sun down.
As this National Farmworker Awareness Week (NFAW) draws to a close with Cesar Chavez Day tomorrow, we hope you’ve enjoyed the moment to step back and appreciate how integral farmworkers are to our society, and to join one of the many national events like AFOP’s National Long-Sleeve Shirt Drive which support them.
Daniel Sheehan is the Executive Director of AFOP.