H2A workers are not an inexpensive source of labor. “The visa fee is $190 per worker, paid across the border, and you’ll need to budget about $250 per worker for transportation direct to your farm,” said Kerry Scott of MAS Labor, who specializes in the H2A program.
“Plan to reimburse your workers for their travel soon after they arrive,” added Scott, “They most likely will arrive stone broke, either because they are very poor, or because their money was taken from them.”
Pay rates for H2A workers are higher per hour than you’d expect to pay for local seasonal workers, but keep in mind that for H2A workers, you are not making payments to Social Security or federal unemployment.
“Also, these workers will have no distractions. Their families are far away. They come here to work hard for long hours to build a better life for their families back home.”
The per hour rates for H2A workers vary by state, and are based on a Department of Labor statistical study. In New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland for example, the hourly rate for 2016 is $11.66 per hour. In Virginia, you’ll pay $10.72 per hour. (If your farm was in the Dakotas, for example, you’d be forking over $14 per hour for 2016.)
For dependable workers who show up every day and aren’t paid extra for overtime, to many farmers, H2A workers are worth the cost. However, if you are a large employer and hire both U.S. workers and H2A workers, be forewarned. There could be unexpected, bigger costs ahead because of a fairly recent change in the rules that is to damaging to employers.
Scott explained, “A large greenhouse grower in the Midwest needed 800 workers, and came up short. He wanted to hire 50 H2A workers to fill out his workforce. Because of this change in the rules, he found that if he brought in these 50, he would have to equalize the pay of his other workers with theirs,” in effect giving each of his other 750 workers (on whom he was paying Social Security and federal and state unemployment) a $3 an hour raise. The costs were too high for him to absorb and he did without the additional 50 workers.
The key is to have your U.S. workers who are hired locally and your H2A workers doing different jobs. If the U.S. workers are in the packing shed and the H2A’s are in the field, there is no problem. But if a sudden storm is coming and you order all hands to the field to bring in the crop, for that whole week, you’ll need to pay the H2A rate to all your workers. If the next week they are back to doing different work, their pay rates will go back to normal. This provision is good to know about in advance, because it can be very costly.
Hiring only local teenagers and non-H2A, locally hired seasonal workers doesn’t necessarily get you home free either, no matter how good your intentions. Ed Weaver, longtime owner of the popular Weavers Orchard near Morgantown, PA found this out last summer. Weavers Orchard grows tree fruits, a wide variety of small fruits and some vegetables, and runs a busy farm market where much of their produce is sold.
“My goal,” Weaver said during a session at the Mid -Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Growers Convention recently, “is to alert operations similar to ours, who are acting in good faith and trying to comply with government rules.” Those rules are constantly changing, and keeping on top of what the current rules are needs to be a high priority for employers.
“We thought we were doing a good job –until three DOL investigators showed up at our farm last July, possibly acting on an anonymous complaint about the perceived ages and duties of our groundskeepers. We employ young people as much as possible,” Weaver continued. “We are the preferred employer of young people in our neighborhood and community. Parents believe our farm is a safe place where their teenagers can learn a good work ethic.”
What had tripped Weaver up was a simple definition. “I had always considered myself to be classified as an agricultural employer. We are after all a working fruit and vegetable operation with a farm market.” The DOL investigators, however, informed him otherwise. “Since our farm market also sold items not grown on our farm, for DOL purposes, we were classified as a non-agricultural employer for workers associated with the farm market.” This reclassification changed what activities his 15-year-old employees were permitted by law to engage in, including using a weed eater and a leaf blower.
“Many farmers may be in a similar situation,” Weaver continued. “I’d like to let them know about this BEFORE the DOL inspectors show up.”
Weaver had spent a lot of time in recent years adapting to changing rules and regulations and implementing new policies, but this was a definition he had missed. “When the inspectors arrived, they gave us 48 hours to produce a lot of documents. I was very thankful that we had detailed payroll records, and were able to hand them a big stack of the required documents before the end of that same afternoon.
“I was also thankful that several years before, we had typed up all our policies on how we were following the regulations concerning younger workers. The inspectors also asked for more in-depth pay records from our most recent pay period, and for the month during which we had the most employees the previous year. The previous fall, we had over 100 workers on our payroll. Fortunately, we had records with names, addresses, ages and whether the workers were full time, seasonal or part-time.”
“Investigators also wanted to see our employee poster area and requested our employee handbook, noting especially policies dealing with the Family Medical Leave Act and on dealing with minors. They interviewed workers in the orchard. They spoke at length with workers in the farm market, where there is a deli, asking whether any workers under 18 had ever been asked to run the slicer or to wash the slicer or knives,” a regulation that Weaver had been familiar with.
The inspectors also checked field vehicles, and here they found their second violation: an old jeep with a turn signal that didn’t work. These vehicles were never driven on township roads except to cross them to take workers from one field to another. However, the regulations require vehicles that transport workers pass a safety checklist that includes signals, headlights, etc.
“That was the most costly part,” continued Weaver. “We had to buy a new field transport vehicle for $15,000 and have budgeted another $15,000 for a second one for the coming year. Also the investigation consumed a tremendous amount of time and energy from both myself and my staff at a busy time of year.”