Rep. Lee Zeldin sat down with members of the L.I. Farm Bureau Saturday morning at the group's Calverton headquarters. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Labor issues were again front and center at the L.I. Farm Bureau’s annual “Coffee with the Congressman” event at the group’s Calverton headquarters.

Each spring at the breakfast meeting, farmers and growers complain about labor problems — specifically about the need for immigration reform and problems with the federal guest worker program. Each spring, Rep. Lee Zeldin expresses his own frustration with the system and the political climate in Washington that thwarts progress on these issues. Before him, Rep. Tim Bishop, would report the same thing.

Zeldin is particularly frustrated by not being able “to get a straight answer” from the Department of Homeland Security on repeated requests to increase the 66,000-worker national cap for the H2B guest worker program. That program provides temporary status for immigrants to come to the U.S. to work in non-agricultural businesses — including hotels and restaurants, as well as market sectors related to traditional agriculture, such as landscaping businesses and greenhouses.

The Shirley Republican, now in his third term, held a news conference Wednesday to call on the Secretary of Homeland Security to raise the H2B cap and to make other changes. He advocates exempting returning workers from the cap and eliminating the H2B lottery system — to allow businesses to bring the same workers back every year. As it stands, businesses usually have to train new workers brought in under the guest worker program — if they can get them at all.

Photo: Denise Civiletti

Zeldin said he “got a lot of blowback” after the news conference from constituents complaining he was looking to “lure more illegals” into the country or saying “we should pressure lazy teens to get out of the house and work.” But there simply are not enough people to do the jobs that need to be done, he said.

“Even if you hire every available able-bodied adult there are still not enough people,” Zeldin said. Just raising wages paid to farm workers, as some people suggested, won’t help. He pointed to a provisions company in the First Congressional District whose owner recently told Zeldin he can’t fill truck-driver jobs paying $70,000 or $80,000 a year.

L.I. Farm Bureau president Karl Novak said local farmers have to stay competitive to survive in the commodity market. They can’t do that if they have to double wages in order to attract workers, Novak said.

“Will consumers pay twice the price for vegetables?” Novak asked. Consumers won’t pay a premium for locally grown vegetables and nursery crops when they can buy products grown out of state and even out of the country for less, he said.

As it is, local growers are competing with growers in Canada who “dump vegetables at Hunts Point” at far lower prices, Bob Nolan said. “There is no fair trade,” he said.

Zeldin credited a booming economy for the imbalanced labor market. “There are more jobs available than people to fill them,” he said.

Local businesses, including agricultural businesses, need to rely on immigrant labor and the federal government should have an efficient, workable program to provide that labor legally, he said.

Long Island Farm Bureau vice president Bill Zalakar of Kurt Weiss Greenhouses said his company doesn’t use either the H2A or H2B program. “We hire local labor — walk-ins, people responding to ads. This year, our applications are down 50 percent,” Zalakar said.

Novak reiterated his plea for immigration reform.

“The H2A program doesn’t work — it’s expensive and hard to navigate with a lot of red tape,” he said. “The H2B cap has stayed the same but demand has increased. The labor pool has shrunk, while demand has gone up.”

While politicians on both sides of the aisle agree immigration reform is needed, they haven’t been able to agree on how to get there. There are sharp differences about how to handle immigrants already in the country without permission, including undocumented young people who were “childhood arrivals” — the people who are eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, established by former President Barack Obama and eliminated by President Donald Trump. Its fate is currently the subject of litigation.

“I don’t believe a comprehensive immigration bill stands a chance,” Zeldin told L.I. Farm Bureau members today. Accordingly, he said, immigration reform should proceed in steps. “If you can agree on some portion, you should get that done,” he said.

Other L.I. Farm Bureau members brought up other topics of concern: coping with climate change, the ambiguity of regulations they must comply with, the fate of Plum Island animal disease lab.

Zeldin was not upbeat about progress forthcoming on any front.

“I don’t see Congress getting anything accomplished right now with regard to anything,” Zeldin lamented. “If you’re going to send us down there for 11 months of the year, there’s got to be something to show for it,” he said.

“There’s never been a point where I’ve been less optimistic that anything is going to get done about anything,” Zeldin said.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.