Dept. of Labor, Guest Worker Program, H-2A, Labor, Politics, Visas

Hiring Migrant Workers a Matter of Survival for Some Utah Farms

From DeseretNews.com, Dennis Romboy, 30 May 2011.

Juan Lopez of Guanajujo, Mexico, who is part of the U.S. Department of Labor's program to provide workers from Mexico with visas for seasonal work, works in the apple orchard at Allred Orchards in Payson on Friday, May 27, 2011. (Photo: Mike Terry, Deseret News)

Juan Lopez of Guanajujo, Mexico, who is part of the U.S. Department of Labor's program to provide workers from Mexico with visas for seasonal work, works in the apple orchard at Allred Orchards in Payson on Friday, May 27, 2011. (Photo: Mike Terry, Deseret News)

PAYSON [UT] — McMullin Orchards puts out the “help wanted” sign each year for workers to prune its trees and harvest its fruit.

This past year, owner Robert McMullin had more takers than usual. “We actually had three or four or five applicants,” said the third-generation farmer.

But, he said, none of them stuck. Some put in as little as two hours before deciding picking cherries or peaches in the hot summer sun wasn’t for them.

“We have a difficult time hiring, even at 6 or 7 percent unemployment,” McMullin said. “We would love to hire all these people they claim are out there pounding on our doors wanting to work.”

“They” would be those saying that immigrants steal jobs from Americans.

From where McMullin picks, that just isn’t happening. Same for Rey Allred whose Allred Farms relies heavily on foreign labor.

“Regardless of what politicians and right-wing radicals say, there are not local people who are skilled and willing to do this work,” said Allred, who has farmed in Payson for 54 years. He used to hire high school and college students and teachers for the summer, but not anymore.

McMullin Orchards brings in as many as 50 migrant workers from Mexico to harvest its sweet cherries in late June and early July.

“They want to work. They work their hearts out and work hard,” he said. “If we’re going to stay in business, that’s what we have to do.”

Though Allred and McMullin would prefer to hire local workers, they say the have no choice but to wade through a bushel of bureaucratic red tape to bring labor from outside the country. “But the good thing about it is, we can have the same people who are skilled and trained to work for us year after year,” Allred said.

And foreign labor doesn’t come cheaply. Both farms contract with an out-of-state service to navigate the onerous federal work visa program. Allred figures he spends about $14 per hour per worker including wages, transportation to Utah and housing.

“It’s just a hassle,” McMullin said. “There’s got to be a better way.”

Some Utah politicians think so, too. The Legislature this year approved HB466, which would establish a partnership with the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon to provide migrant workers to Utah. More than that, the measure sets up a commission to study ways to streamline the visa process to make it easier for farmers like McMullin and Allred.

“I think it’s the right move for the state of Utah,” Allred said. “It could help us if they could remove some restrictions.”

The federal government issues various types of work visas, including one known as H-2A for temporary agricultural workers. In 2010, 55,921 people came to the United States on H-2A visas, the vast majority from Mexico.

How many of them came to Utah isn’t clear. None of the federal agencies dealing with migrant labor or immigration could provide numbers.

The U.S. Department of Labor has statistics showing Utah farms and ranches requested H2-A visas for more than 2,500 workers in 2009. How many of them actually came to the state isn’t clear. In the past year, 91 farms and ranches made requests for foreign workers, ranging from two to more than 50, according to the Labor Department.

The Utah Department of Workforce Services estimates there are 3,000 seasonal farm workers in the state legally based on self-declarations.

Maria Nye runs Mountain View Dairy in Delta. She, too, would rather hire locals, but even in rural central Utah she can’t find willing or qualified workers.

“If they’re native to the United States, they’re usually looking for a job with machinery,” she said. “No one has ever said, ‘Yes, I would like to milk cows.'”

Nye relies solely on immigrant labor to milk her 3,000 cows three times a day, 365 days a year. But they are not seasonal or migrant workers. She hires legal permanent residents, mostly from Mexico and Latin America.

“We need people who are here for a longer period of time,” she said.

Nye said there isn’t a work visa program tailored to the dairy industry, though there has been talk in Congress of creating one. She isn’t holding her breath.

“Politically, my thought is it isn’t going to happen anytime soon. That’s sad. There’s not just the agriculture that has labor issues. There are many more businesses that need labor,” she said.

Allred doesn’t need workers year-round. But due to federal rules, he said, he employs them about 10 months a year because they are not allowed to work on other farms. Their contract guarantees them to be paid for 75 percent of the time they are in the country.

Allred Farms hires migrant workers in February to prune trees and work through the last harvest of Fuji apples in November. But there’s not much to do during some of those months, so Allred has had to adapt his crops to provide more steady work.

“We feel responsible to keep them working,” he said.

Source and additional photos: DeseretNews.com, “Hiring migrant workers a matter of survival for some Utah farms” by Dennis Romboy, 30 May 2011.

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