“It would certainly be ideal if growers could put an ad in the newspaper, accept applications, and hire American workers,” stated Kerry Scott of MAS Labor. Unfortunately, that approach isn’t working. For example, a grower/packer near Reno, NV needs 1725 seasonal laborers. Some of the work offered is in an air-conditioned packing shed, and even the fieldwork doesn’t involve actual “stoop labor.” Harvesting is done mechanically, with workers at the back of the harvesting machines. The grower also pays very well.
“The area around Reno, Nevada has the highest unemployment in Nevada, and most of the time, Nevada has the highest unemployment in the country,” Scott continued, speaking at the Mid Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Growers Convention recently. “The grower ran ‘Help Wanted’ ads in the local papers. They had zero applicants for these well-paying jobs!”
Refugee communities can sometimes be a source of workers, particularly when they have federal, and sometimes state, help in locating work. Among communities in Ohio and Virginia is a source of agricultural workers, particularly for farms that are not too far distant from their communities.
A third possible source of non-migrant, U.S.-based labor can be work-release programs from jails and correctional institutions. “Three years ago,” Scott explained, “there was a huge labor shortage for apple picking in the state of Washington.”
Some growers decided to work with state prisons. But the expenses incurred by those growers were daunting. Growers paid for the inmates to be bused to and from their farms each day. Growers also provided a canteen to feed lunch to the workers. They also paid for guards to be present during working hours to prevent potential prisoner escapes.
“It cost those growers an average of $22 per hour for every hour each inmate worked. On top of that, the quality of the work was ‘iffy.’ These workers weren’t picking apples for applesauce. They were picking apples for fresh market, which need to be picked carefully by color and handled carefully to prevent bruising. The results of hiring inmates, for these growers, were disappointing.”
What all this means is that many growers are looking at a Hispanic or Jamaican work force, or refugees, “and we’re running out of them,” Scott continued.
Some growers avoid going through H2A by hiring labor contractors to bring their workers. This is becoming less dependable, however, according to Scott. “A labor contractor had delivered 50 workers to a particular grower last year, on time.” This grower spent the winter expecting the labor contractor to come through with the 50 workers he needed the following spring. “However, in April, the contractor called to say that he could only find 30 workers, leaving the grower with a serious labor shortage at the beginning of the season.”
“We need H2A, or whatever succeeds it. It is the only way we can fill the labor gap. Growers say H2A is too much paperwork. But is it, when you consider the results? Let’s suppose most of the growers in this room have not yet tried H2A. Suppose you decided to bite the bullet and fill out the paperwork to get the workers you know you’ll need.
There are agents who can help — for a fee, yes — but the fee could be a good investment in avoiding potential pitfalls. “I’ll tell you how our agency, MAS Labor, goes about helping growers with their H2A workers,” continued Scott. “There are other agents who are very good, but I’ll tell you what I know from my own experience in working for MAS Labor, which is the world’s largest supplier of H2A workers. We’re based in Lovingston, VA, but we work with growers of all sizes, as well as groups of growers, across the United States.
“The first step is to choose your Start Date, the date you expect to need your workers.” This is not a last-minute decision. Choose your Start Date 2 1/2 months in advance, then add two additional weeks. That’s the minimum advance notice you need to give to be sure your workers will arrive on time. The longer advanced notice you can give, the better. Build everything else around that expected Start Date.
Understand that your Start Date is not set in stone. Weather happens. You may have 2 feet of snow under your apple trees. “We, as your agent, can delay the arrival date of your workers, if necessary, by 2 to 3 weeks. We can do this by scheduling visa appointments later. Or, after workers have picked up their visas, we can ask them to wait a few weeks before coming across the border. When you’re dealing through an agency, this can be worked out,” if for example, you have apple harvesters scheduled to arrive Sept. 1, and your apples will not be ready to be harvested.
You also need to set an End Date. Many produce growers may legitimately expect to need their workers for the full 10 months they are allowed to stay in the U.S. But again, weather and other unexpected circumstances can happen, and you may find that before your contracted period is up, everything has been harvested and you have no more work to offer. What then?
“The limiting factor in sending H2A workers home early is the ‘3/4 guarantee.’ Look at each person’s hours worked from the Start Date until the date when you find you no longer have work to offer. Have you, over that whole time period, given those workers at least ¾ of the hours you had offered in your application?”
One way MAS Labor helps growers to avoid sticky situations like this, which can happen despite the best intentions, is to write the hours on the application for 40-hour work weeks, knowing that most weeks they are working, your workers will probably be putting in more hours.
“If you have met the ‘3/4 Guarantee,’ and you have no more work to offer, you can give your workers transportation money and let them go home. If you have not reached the ‘¾ Guarantee’ point, you have the choice of figuring out more work they can do for you, or giving them extra money to make up the difference in their earnings. An ‘Act of God’ does excuse you from the 3/4 guarantee.”
What do you do if you have an H2A worker who does not produce? “When you are working with MAS Labor, there are three steps you need to take,” Scott continued. First, give a verbal reprimand. Next give a written reprimand. Then you put them on the bus.
“If you contact your agent at MAS Labor within a couple of days of termination, he will notify Homeland Security and the Department of Labor, and you’re off the hook. If the problem is only that the worker is slow, you may need to pay his transportation home.”
Based on his experience, Scott believes it is unlikely that a grower will have problems with H2A workers. “These guys still have a strong rural work ethic. Their goal is to work maximum hours and to make you happy so you’ll want them back again next year. For the required two months back in Mexico, they will typically be planning to use their earnings to build a house, drill a well, or send a kid to college. They are motivated to make life better for their families.”
To be continued in Part 2.