From WatertownDailyTimes.com, Marc Heller, 23 Oct 2011.
WASHINGTON — Farmers who want to hire workers through the H2A visa guest worker program soon may be able to file and track their applications over the Internet — if Congress provides enough money, the federal Labor Department told Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
In a reply to a letter the senator and other lawmakers from New York wrote to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis in July, the department outlined efforts to make the much-criticized program run more smoothly. Web-based filing would improve access to the department’s services and allow farmers to check an application’s status electronically, wrote Janes Oates, assistant Labor secretary for employment and training.
If the budget permits, that system could be running next summer, Ms. Oates wrote.
Like other farmers around the country, New York farmers have complained about delays in processing applications. The bureaucratic troubles have been so severe, some farmers say, that there is little use participating in the program; farmers need a speedy system to ensure crops can be picked on time.
The program is primarily for produce growers who need seasonal workers. Dairy farms are not eligible, but Mrs. Gillibrand and other lawmakers — including Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh — have proposed legislation to expand the program to dairy farms, which use immigrant workers to milk cows and for other jobs.
“We understand the important role the agriculture sector, particularly apple production, plays in New York’s economy,” Ms. Oates wrote.
She added, “We know employers with legitimate needs are successfully using the H2A program.”
All of the applications for apple production workers in New York this year were certified, Ms. Oates wrote, and 72 percent of the applications were certified at least 30 days before the employer’s date of need, she said.
In addition to the plans for Web-based filing, the department already has expanded use of email in the program, Ms. Oates said. Growers in New York and New England can email the department about specific applications, as part of a pilot program that officials consider successful and may expand soon to other states, she said.
The department also has tried to be more flexible with growers, giving them more time to submit documents rather than face a denial based on incomplete filings, she said.
In their July letter to the Labor Department, lawmakers complained that delays in the H2A program last year, mainly concerning workers from Jamaica, hurt the harvest, caused significant losses and forced some growers to leave apples on the trees.
Mr. Owens also signed on to the July letter.