When a dedicated employee approached the owners of Tagawa Greenhouses in Brighton, Colo., recently, she came with an unusual request: She was ready to transition toward retirement and wanted to cut back from 55 to 40 hours a week — or as she termed it, “part-time” work.
This week, Tagawa Senior Business Manager Bill Kluth shared that story and others with legislators in Washington, D.C., during SAF’s 34th Annual Congressional Action Days (CAD). The tongue-in-cheek anecdote (40 hours a week is full-time at Tagawa, but days can stretch much longer during busy seasons) helped Kluth and his fellow Coloradans break the ice during the group’s meetings March 11 with lawmakers and congressional staff, but it also emphasized that the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) definition of full-time work (30 hours) is out of touch and impractical. “The story made them laugh,” Kluth said, “but this health care law is a really big issue for us.”
During the two-day conference, more than 70 growers, wholesalers, retailers and suppliers from 20 states met with representatives from congressional offices to advocate for immigration reform for agriculture and targeted fixes to the Affordable Care Act, including an adjustment to raise the definition of full-time employment from 30 to 40 hours. Using personal stories, the SAF delegation tried to do what many members of both Congress and the media have failed to do on these highly charged topics — they put aside politics and instead focused on the human toll of bad policy and the fundamental economics of each issue, messages SAF President Shirley Lyons, AAF, PFCI, said must be reinforced again… and again. “CAD is about the power of persistence and moving the needle bit by bit,” said Lyons, owner of Dandelions Flowers and Gifts in Eugene, Ore.“(These issues) affect the bottom line of our business. Coming to Washington really does make an impact.”
Immigration Reform: Solutions for a Broken Program
Immigration reform for agriculture has become a perennial issue for many SAF members; despite passage of a Senate “comprehensive reform” bill last year, against the backdrop of political in-fighting and looming mid-term elections, passage in the House is a much harder battle. “I’m not putting money down either way, which actually makes me an optimist (on this issue),” said Lisa Desjardins, the Capitol Hill correspondent for CNNRadio, one of four Washington, D.C. reporters featured on a panel at the Kick-Off Breakfast. “The politics are really unclear. I don’t see anything sweeping or comprehensive.”
“Can (immigration reform) get done this year? I’m not sure,” said Chris Adamo, Chief of Staff of the Senate Agriculture Committee, when he briefed attendees. But Adamo, whose parents, Connie Adamo and former SAF board member John Adamo own Conner Park Florist in St. Clair Shores and Detroit, Mich., urged SAF members to remember that the timeline and current standstill are far less important than the end result — an immigration system that works for employees and employers. For reform to happen, lawmakers need to hear stories from floral industry members, he said. “You, leaving stories behind today…that’s what matters,” said Adamo, who attended CAD as a kid alongside his parents in the mid-‘80s. “You have no idea how important that is. Congress is much more open than you realize.”
The need for immigration reform drove first-time attendee Mike Mooney of Dramm and Echter in Encinitas, Calif., to attend CAD this year. “We’ve been growing (sales) for four years, but the potential to be stagnant next year motivated me,” he said, noting that myriad issues, including labor shortages and the convoluted immigration system are posing steep challenges. Like many southern California growers, the team at Dramm and Echter depend on immigrant labor and need a stable workforce. About 11 of Mooney’s employees come legally from Mexico to work and then return home in the evenings. Crossing the border can take up to five hours in the morning, and then another two or three hours at night. “That’s on top of a 10-hour workday,” Mooney explained. The wasted time takes a toll on employees and reduces the efficiency of California growers, Mooney argued. If the system were improved, “we could start planting more plants tomorrow,” he said.
Ben Dobbe of Holland America Flowers in Arroyo Grande, Calif., conveyed similar frustration to lawmakers and staff when he described the current immigration system in action — a system so broken that it forces employers to adopt a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality with workers. Even when the law is followed to the letter, Dobbe said, employers are left exposed and the burden on immigrants and their families is extreme. “Two years ago, we had an employee who had been with us for six years, a great tractor driver, who came to us one day (out of the blue) and said he was illegal,” Dobbe said. Holland America followed immigration law, let the employee go, and lost the benefit of his training and experience. SAF Senior Director of Government Relations Lin Schmale said it isn’t unusual for growers to lose valued workers in that way, only to see them turn up at a competitor’s farm later.
“These are economic issues,” said Schmale. “We’ve taken immigration reform to the Hill for many years. Don’t be discouraged by that. Every time we talk about immigration reform, it helps.”
ACA Fixes: Jobs Over Politics
CAD attendees also rallied to educate lawmakers and congressional staff on the real-world implications of how the new health care law defines full-time staff members (“with respect to any month, an employee who is employed on average at least 30 hours of service per week”) and seasonal workers (the ACA’s seasonal exception applies only to determining business size and can only be utilized by employers whose workforce exceeds 50 full-time equivalents for 120 days or less; only after those conditions are met can the limited seasonal exception be applied.)
The definition of full-time work in the law is unprecedented and potentially damaging to businesses of all size, said SAF Senior Director of Government Relations Corey Connors. “Until passage of the ACA, employers were free to determine what constituted full-time employment within their businesses,” Connors said, noting that terms defined in a law can have a “viral effect” moving from one piece of legislation to another. “Virtually all SAF members consider something greater than 30 (hours a week) to be a full-time standard.”
Like Connors, Martin Meskers of Oregon Flowers in Aurora, Ore., said he’s worried that the ACA’s 30-hour standard could “seep into” other laws and regulations if left unchallenged. (His company defines full-time work as 40 hours a week.) Doug Fick of Broadway Floral Home and Garden in Portland, Ore., who lobbied lawmakers and staff alongside Meskers, expressed similar fears: His eight full-time employees work four days a week, 10-hour days, for a 40-hour standard. In metro Philadelphia, Chris Drummond, AAF, of Plaza Flowers said his full-time standard has long been 35 hours. When Toomie Farris, AAF, AIFD, of McNamara Florist in Fishers, Ind., met with some opposition from the office of Congressman Andre Carson (D-Ind.), the second-time attendee brought stories about his own struggles grappling with the law, and the detrimental effect the 30-hour standard already is having on his community. “Thirty-hour folks are being reduced to 22, 25 (hours a week) because (many employers are) afraid of touching that 30,” he said. “It’s costing (our country) in lost wages.”
Leo Roozen, AAF, of Washington Bulb Company Inc., in Mount Vernon, Wash., spoke for many business owners in the industry when he expressed deep, pull-your-hair-out frustration over the ACA’s definition of seasonal work — and the many questions that definition raises for industry members across segments who rely on short-term workers for specific, condensed periods of time throughout the year. Prior to coming to Washington, Roozen had already invested time and money parsing through the law with his lawyers to try and ensure compliance; even those experts had trouble pinpointing his liability (seasonally, the company has up to 600 employees, a group that includes full-time employees, seasonal workers who contribute from six to 12 months a year, and non-resident seasonal H-2A employees).
In anticipation of his meetings in D.C. Roozen, a past SAF president and former head of SAF’s Government Relations Committee, brought personalized background sheets on his business and the floral industry to share with lawmakers and staff, and he said he’s following up with invitations to visit his operations. “The best thing you can do is to get people to sit down with you in your home area,” he said. “Then they come back and have credibility (with other lawmakers). They can say ‘I’ve seen it. I’ve been in the field. I’ve walked in the coolers.’ There is nothing better than credibility.”
SAF extends a special thank you to the generous Congressional Action Days underwriters: AmericanHort, BloomNet, FTD and Teleflora.