From GlasgowDailyTimes.com, Amanda Loviza, Glasgow Daily Times, 24 Apr 2011.
GLASGOW [KY] — Local tobacco farmers who rely on foreign workers through the H-2A visa program need to start paying more attention to paperwork, due to new changes in the regulations.
Two representatives from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division spent three hours Tuesday explaining to local farmers the importance of reading their H-2A contracts, abiding by the rules and doing all the necessary paperwork.
H-2A agent Ray Wilcoxson said that the required record-keeping may not be desirable, but it’s worth it.
“It’s a very strict program, it’s a very excellent program,” said Wilcoxson, who oversees about 40 farmers with 300-350 H-2A workers in a three-state area.
In order to get workers through the H-2A temporary agricultural program, a farmer must prove to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that he cannot find any able, willing or qualified U.S. employees and that hiring H-2A workers will not adversely affect any U.S. workers’ pay. A farmer must fill out an application and sign a contract, which commits the farmer to certain regulations regarding wages, opportunities for U.S. workers, record-keeping, etc.
The three things most important for farmers to remember, according to Wilcoxson, are hiring local workers, reading contracts and keeping records.
“Jot everything down,” he said. “I don’t care what it is, make notations … if not, it’ll bite (the farmers).”
Farmers complained vehemently at Tuesday’s meeting that they do not have time to fill out all the paperwork required by the H-2A program. The program requires farmers to fill out a wage statement with each paycheck, among other paperwork that is confusing to the farmers. But without keeping the proper records, farmers can be fined for being in violation of H-2A rules, said Karen Garnett, assistant district director of the Wage and Hour Division in Louisville.
Wilcoxson said he has seen cases of fines up to a quarter of a million dollars or so.
As part of reading the contract, farmers must realize that they have committed themselves to recruiting U.S. workers and hiring any available U.S. workers as long as they are still employing H-2A workers, up to the 50 percent mark of the H-2A contract. Many farmers at the meeting said that U.S. workers who come to their farm are often irresponsible and have no experience working in a tobacco field. But Jeff Gatewood, program coordinator for H-2A in Kentucky, said their experience isn’t important, as long as they’re American.
“If they’re breathing, they’re pretty much qualified,” Gatewood told the farmers.
Garnett told the crowd that H-2A workers cannot displace U.S. workers, but U.S. workers must displace H-2A workers, even if the H-2A workers are doing well on the farm. The concern is turning away hard-working Americans who need employment in favor of foreign workers.
“We don’t want farmers arbitrarily turning people away,” Garnett said.
But as one farmer in the audience said, “If we could find enough Americans to do the work, we wouldn’t be here.”
Wilcoxson said most Americans are not willing to work in the fields all day, cutting and storing tobacco. He told a story of a farmer who needed 24 workers. He got 18 U.S. applicants, and only one was “worth a dime.”
“You can’t get good workers on a farm today. … It’s a dirty, nasty job,” he said.
As far as Wilcoxson is concerned, he said the H-2A workers are “good as gold,” just family men trying to make some money so they can send it back home. Other farmers at Tuesday’s meeting shared the same feelings. One Tennessee farmer said that in 15 years, only three H-2A workers he has hired have not worked out. Wilcoxson said that no matter the complications of following regulations, the H-2A program is necessary to the Kentucky tobacco industry.
“I don’t believe we’d raise tobacco if we didn’t have (the H-2A program),” he said.