H-2A, Labor

Lack of Local Labor Means Foreign Workers Filling Farm Jobs

From ENCToday.com, Wesley Brown, 9 Oct 2011.

Kendall Hill may occasionally see a local resident come to Tull Hill Farms in Grifton in response to an advertisement offering employment that pays more than minimum wage.

But the 72-year-old, who harvested a field of sweet potatoes this week, said almost 100 percent of the time, they do not stick around.

It’s not an uncommon sight for farmers across Eastern North Carolina, despite more than one in 10 North Carolinians being currently unemployed.

The lack of local work has fields filled with foreign-born workers with H2A visas to plant and harvest the fruits and vegetables area growers count on to make a living.

“Without these workers from South America, or Mexico especially, this country would collapse,” Hill said.

Farmers in Lenoir, Greene and Jones counties have grown accustomed to the shortage, starting the 90-day process to get temporary work from abroad in late November and early December by submitting an application to have their labor camps inspected in January and workers in the fields by March, said N.C. Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, who owns a farm in Autryville.

Jackson, whose district also includes Lenoir and Duplin counties, said last year his farm had roughly 50 referrals from the N.C. Employment Commission.

The agency relies on an agricultural agent to put farmers in touch with a regional crew leader out of Atlanta to find potential staff, said Louie Johnson Jr., the ESC’s agriculture employment consultant for Lenoir County.

After interviews, Jackson said less than five took the job, three only stayed longer than two weeks and the remainder copped out in six weeks.

“The reality is we cannot get North Carolinians or Americans to work in the fields or in the swine operation,” he said.

The scarcity poses major problems for an agriculture industry that submits some job orders requesting as many as 100 workers in a “highly” involved certification program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, said Lee Wicker, deputy director of N.C. Growers Association, the largest contractor of H2A visas in the country.

When they cannot get local workers, Wicker said farmers must file an application with the labor department at least 60 days before workers’ employment start date, stating they expect a labor shortage from a lack of U.S. workers. In the contract, they must list the wages and benefits offered and job duties and working conditions of its business.

No longer than a month before foreign workers start, the Department of Labor will review each farm that has applied to make sure it has worker’s compensation insurance in place and its labor camps inspected and certified.

If they have met all labor and safety documents approved, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of State come into play to twice screen an applicant and schedule appointments for farm workers to come into the country.

At the border, workers are given their visas, screened once by the border patrol and board charter buses to Vass, the headquarters of the N.C. Growers Association where they will go through orientation.

Wicker said the average farm has 12 to 15 workers with nine on loan on temporary permits and the remainder, who largely operate machinery, recruited locally. He said farms usually bring in a few temporary workers in the spring for planting, then add more during the summer for growing and harvesting seasons, before sending them back home at the end of the fall.

If someone local bows out, Jackson said, the 90-day process starts over, first with an advertisement in three major newspapers.

“By that time,” he said. “Our cantaloupe crop is done.”

Wesley Brown can be reached at 252-559-1075 or wbrown@freedomenc.com.

Source: ENCToday.com, “Lack of local labor means foreign workers filling farm jobs” by Wesley Brown, 9 Oct 2011.

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