Jun 4, 2015
Dwindling options force more growers to use H-2A program

For years, agricultural employers and their advocates have been complaining about the state of the H-2A guest-worker program: It’s too expensive. There’s too much paperwork. It’s not flexible enough. And so on.

Many hoped that if the U.S. Congress passed some sort of immigration reform package, it would include an improved and expanded seasonal guest-worker program that would supersede H-2A and all of its limitations. But Congress has shown little sign that it’s capable of approving such legislation.

In the meantime, U.S. agriculture’s traditional labor pool continues to dry up. Farm workers are getting older, getting jobs in other industries or are staying in Mexico, where the economy is improving and there’s no difficult border to cross, said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE).

So, incredible as it may seem and despite all its flaws, the much-maligned H-2A program just might be the future for growers seeking a reliable seasonal work force.

Statistics from the last few years leave no doubt: H-2A use is on the rise. According to NCAE, 136,822 H-2A workers were certified in 2014, up from 90,328 in 2011 (the actual number of workers who show up is always less than the certified number). In the same period, the number of employers and agents filing for H-2A workers rose from 1,604 to 1,796.

Washington state growers hired about a thousand H-2A workers in 2007, whereas last year they brought in more than 9,000 – roughly 15 percent of the state’s seasonal work force. More than 50,000 seasonal workers are needed for the state’s apple harvest alone, said Dan Fazio, director of WAFLA, a labor recruitment company in the Pacific Northwest.

Florida growers brought in 13,500 H-2A workers in 2014, up from about 10,000 in 2013. It looks like the number will go up again in 2015, said Mike Carlton, director of labor relations for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

The Michigan fruit and vegetable industry is just dipping its toe in the H-2A program. A handful of growers hired workers last year as part of a project organized by Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB), and a few more will do so this year.

The H-2A program remains difficult and expensive, but employers who use it say the workers are more productive and reliable. They also say that once you’ve got your infrastructure in place and you’ve mastered the application process after the first couple of years, it does get easier. And now that the U.S. Department of Labor has gotten used to new regulations that were put in place a few years ago, the process is smoother on the federal end as well, Gasperini said.

But though it’s improving in some ways, will H-2A ever be able to supply all of agriculture’s seasonal labor needs? Can it grow into that expanded guest-worker program employers have been hoping for?

Probably not, according to Gasperini. In theory, the program could meet U.S. agriculture’s seasonal labor needs (up to 2 million workers) because there’s no cap on the number of H-2A workers who can be hired (unlike H-2B, the non-ag guest-worker program). But housing barriers and limited regulatory resources create a “de facto cap.” Gasperini guessed that 250,000 to 300,000 workers would be enough to overwhelm H-2A’s capacity.

For the program to truly expand, the government agencies that oversee it would need much greater resources. And years and millions of dollars would need to be spent on constructing housing that could pass H-2A’s stringent standards, Gasperini said.

A revamp of H-2A is still needed if it’s to provide for ag’s total seasonal labor needs. Congress is considering the possibility, but hasn’t gone past the discussion stage, Gasperini said.

Carlton said that “unless Congress will do some grown-up things as far as immigration reform is concerned, such as pass a bill to provide a guest-worker program that will be functional for agriculture,” there are no realistic options for Florida growers but to use H-2A, despite all its flaws.

Carlton’s ideal guest-worker program would include a pay structure that’s more reflective of actual local wages than H-2A’s adverse effect wage rate. He also would like a program that – unlike H-2A – can adjust to unpredictable harvest times.

He said Florida growers have shown some interest in a cooperative approach to H-2A – sharing workers from farm to farm and crop to crop, both inside and outside the state. Such an approach also would extend the workers’ ability to draw income.

New to the program

Gasperini is noticing many first-time H-2A users this year, including Fred Leitz, the current president of NCAE.

Leitz and his brothers grow vegetables and fruit at Leitz Farms in Sodus, Michigan. To him, the H-2A guest-worker program was always for states that weren’t part of the “migrant flow.” But the flow that originated in Florida started drying up in 2012, when freeze events killed massive amounts of fruit and discouraged workers from coming to Michigan. Leitz thought things would improve in 2013, but he was about 50 workers short that year and, as a result, had to leave 50 acres of tomatoes in the field. There were more than enough workers in 2014, mostly because rain damaged much of the crop and harvest was smaller than normal.

Like a lot of growers he’s talked to around the country, Leitz would like to end the uncertainty and make sure he has access to a reliable work force. That’s why he decided to join H-2A.

Leitz decided to recruit workers through MFB’s Great Lakes Ag Labor Services, a company created to help growers navigate the guest-worker program.

If considering H-2A, there are a few things growers need to realize. They’ll be spending more money on labor than they have in the past. They will have to pay higher wages and buy more supplies than usual. And their worker housing has to be up to standard, Leitz said.

“They’ll come with a suitcase,” he said. “Everything else I have to supply.”

Growers also will need to take a rigorous look at their hiring, payroll and other procedures. Every farm using H-2A should designate a “go-to” person who can master those procedures. Leitz became that person on his farm.

Perhaps the most important thing to learn, however, is to go in with the right attitude.

“Once you get it in your head that this is what you have to do, just go ahead and do it,” Leitz said. “Don’t waste time complaining about it.”

As of early May, Leitz’s experience with H-2A had been positive. The approval process had gone fairly smoothly, and he was expecting 110 guest workers (most likely from Mexico) to arrive about June 20 and stay until Oct. 15. The H-2A contingent will comprise about half his work force this season, with the rest coming from his pool of local and seasonal workers. The H-2A workers will harvest crops like cucumbers, tomatoes, blueberries and apples, as well as perform other farm tasks, Leitz said.

Matt Milkovich

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