Guest Worker Program, H-2A, Labor, Visas

East Oregonian: H-2A Reform is a Step in Right Direction

From NCGrowers.org, East Oregonian, 27 Jul 2011.

This Our View piece was published here in the East Oregonian

In a perfect world, unemployed American citizens would eagerly accept farm, nursery or orchard jobs and apply themselves diligently despite the often backbreaking nature of the work.

In the perfect world, growers could afford to pay workers $20 an hour for unskilled jobs because their customers would be willing to pay a premium for their products. Growers would never consider bringing in documented guestworkers, let alone unknowingly hire illegal immigrants, because they would have a backlog of viable applications among U.S. citizens.

But in the real world, none of this is happening. Labor-intensive segments of American agriculture – fruit and vegetable production and the nursery industry in particular – depend on foreign workers to plant, tend and harvest their crops and stock. Unfortunately, a huge number of these workers are in the country illegally.

It is time for Congress to provide a viable temporary worker program.

Those who want to do the right thing and ensure they hire only legal foreign workers are stymied by the current program Bill Case, a farmer and packer in Albany, Ore., told his story to the Capital Press. Case decided to use the H-2A visa program four years ago after struggling to find workers to fill the needs of his expanded operation. Case couldn’t hire enough local workers to pick and pack his corn for 10 weeks of the season. Those who did take the job quit in short order.

Under the program’s rules, before Case could hire foreign workers he had to show he made every effort to hire citizens to fill his crews. He advertised for people to pack corn at $10.60 an hour in newspapers in a four-state area and the applications poured in. Of 453 who applied last year, 179 didn’t show up for scheduled interviews, Case said, and 217 had poor or no references. Of the 57 the farm hired, only 11 showed up for work. And all 11 quit within the first two days.

Case hires around 20 temporary workers with H-2A visas from Mexico each season. They work 10 weeks, then return home. Case must fill out 20 pages of paperwork for each temporary worker he hires. Because H-2A visas are good for just one year, Case must repeat the process annually.

And each year, the paperwork increases and the rules become more strict.

But still, even though he lives in a state where 200,000 people are unemployed, he says it’s the only way he can get the workers he needs.

There are some who say if employers paid higher wages they would get Americans to take the jobs. The growers we’ve talked with, people who have experience trying to fill these jobs, don’t believe that. And the critics cannot say what that wage might be. Realistically, how much can employers pay unskilled labor? How much are their customers willing to pay when imported fruits and vegetables are available at a cheaper cost?

There are those who say the ag industry, among others, doesn’t want to use the federal government’s E-verify system to ensure the workers they hire are either citizens or documented immigrants. We don’t think it’s that cut and dried. Even in our less-than-perfect world we would prefer that the agriculture industry took all the measures possible to ensure that only citizens and documented workers were hired. But it isn’t that simple.

Reform of the guestworker program, while not an ideal solution, would at least give growers and packers a legal option that is economically viable.

Source: NCGrowers.org, “East Oregonian: H-2A Reform is a step in right direction” by East Oregonian, 27 Jul 2011.

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