Feb 26, 2016
More Michigan growers hiring H-2A workers

Michigan growers are taking the plunge into H-2A, and don’t appear to be turning back.

It started with a pilot project in 2014, when four apple orchards hired 90 pickers. By 2015, Michigan Farm Bureau, which organized the pilot, had created a division called Great Lakes Ag Labor Services (GLALS) to help growers navigate the H-2A federal guest-worker program.

Growers are using the H-2A worker program to meet labor needs in the field and in the packing shed.
Growers are using the H-2A worker program to meet labor needs in the field and in the packing shed.

Michigan’s H-2A use grew to 405 workers on 10 fruit and vegetable farms in 2015, and things are only expected to grow from there, said Katie Rasch, an associate labor program coordinator with GLALS.

Rasch and other speakers discussed H-2A during the recent Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

In years past, the advice to growers had always been “if you can go any other way besides H-2A, then do it,” Rasch said. “We still kind of say that. If you’re finding domestic labor anywhere else, you should go with that. H-2A is a very complicated and cumbersome process.”

But due to an aging workforce, tighter national borders and other factors, the domestic farm labor pool is drying up – leaving H-2A as the only viable alternative for many growers.

If you decide to hire workers through H-2A, however, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. You’ll have to wade through multiple government agencies, all with different deadlines. If you get behind with one, you get behind with all of them – which could ultimately lead to workers arriving late. A lot of “front-end” work is required, Rasch said.

Be clear about what you need from the workers up front, because you will be held to the contract you sign with them. And keep in mind that H-2A rules require you to hire willing, qualified and able domestic workers, who are entitled to the same benefits and rate of pay as the guest workers (the minimum wage for Michigan H-2A workers in 2015 was $11.56 an hour). You must provide free housing to all your workers, she said.

One of the most significant costs of the H-2A program is transportation. You have to pay the workers’ inbound and outbound transportation costs, as well as provide daily transportation to and from the worksite. You also have to transport them to grocery, laundry and bank facilities, she said.

“In the heat of harvest, taking a whole day to do all of these things – especially with a big group – can be very time consuming,” Rasch said.

Fred Leitz and his brothers grow vegetables and fruit at Leitz Farms
in Sodus, Michigan. They decided to join H-2A in 2015, after a few years
of labor shortages. Leitz said H-2A’s housing, transportation, payroll and other requirements were scary at first, but with help from GLALS they got through the process.

More than a hundred guest workers arrived at Leitz Farms about July 1. The biggest initial concern for the Leitz brothers was productivity. They had heard that H-2A workers were very productive, but how can you be sure until you try?

After the first week on the job, Fred’s brother came in the office, shaking his head.

“I don’t know guys. I think we messed up.”

After the second week, he came in and said, “It’s getting better.”

After the third week, he was “thumbs up. This is gonna work. This is better than we’ve had in many years,” Leitz said.

Harvest normally requires about 150 workers in the field, but in 2015 they got by with 130 – about 105 of them H-2A and the rest domestics. They had their highest pack-outs ever, and the cost of producing them was about average, Leitz said.

“If you go into the program, believe me, you’ll be happy with that part of it,” he said.

Leitz stressed one point: Only join H-2A if you have a labor shortage, not a labor problem. If you have a labor problem, that’s a management issue. Fix the management issue before you join H-2A, because the guest-worker program can’t solve that.

When you join H-2A, everybody on the management team has to be on board. Make sure you have office personnel in place who have the time and temperament to deal with H-2A’s complex requirements.

“I’d suggest a young person, because they’re not so cynical to all the government things that us older people are getting to be,” Leitz said.

You’ll probably find yourself doing things you consider “stupid, asinine and foolish,” he said, but do them anyway. Remember you’re playing by government rules, not your own.

Once you’ve made up your mind to use H-2A, the first thing you need to do is sit down about 75 to 80 days before the season and write down all of your labor needs. Then you need to decide which jobs you want the H-2A workers to do, he said.

H-2A workers can only perform the tasks that are in their contract, so consider carefully what you need them to do. Leitz had to make sure his supervisors knew not to grab a couple of H-2A workers to perform some off-contract task, he said.

Leitz ended up being short on help in the packing shed last season, so he plans to broaden the H-2A contract next season to avoid running into the same problem.

There was another advantage to H-2A, Leitz said. Since there were workers only, and not their extended families, his labor camps were much less crowded. There were no complaints from neighbors about traffic and noise, unlike in the past. And the domestic and H-2A workers got along fine. Some of them were even related.

Mexican perspective

Guillermo Mathus, a recruiter with CSI Labor Services based in Durango, Mexico, gave the EXPO audience the perspective of a Mexican recruiting company. CSI represents U.S. H-2A employers in Mexico. He said this was the company’s first year working with GLALS.

In general, CSI processes about 25,000 H-2A workers a year, guiding them from Mexican villages to farms across the United States. After locating the workers, CSI identifies their skills and helps them through the visa process. It also arranges for their transportation to the United States, which normally takes a day to a day and a half, depending on where they are going, Mathus said.

So, what makes a successful employer/employee relationship in the H-2A program? The workers need to understand up front what’s expected of them, and what they can expect from the employer, he said.

Good human resources practices are a must, as well as staff people who can communicate in Spanish. You also need a general understanding
of Mexican culture. Mexicans always work as a team, and reprimand and compensation practices need to reflect that, Mathus said.

Matt Milkovich, managing editor

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