From NashuaTelegraph.com, Shannon Young, 9 Nov 2011.
WASHINGTON – As the fall apple harvest winds down, some New Hampshire apple farmers who depend on foreign-born seasonal labor fear visa regulations from the U.S. Labor Department will hinder farming operations.
“If some year I can’t get any (foreign seasonal) workers, then I’ll have to seriously consider downsizing,” said Ernie Roberts, owner of Meadow Ledge Farm in Loudon.
Roberts, who currently employs six migrant workers under the H-2A guest worker program, said visa delays in the spring made it difficult to prepare apple trees at the beginning of the season and had a negative impact on the fall harvest.
“(The delay) made it stressful for me as an owner,” he said.
The current H-2A program allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers for seasonal agricultural labor when there is a lack of domestic workers. Employers wishing to hire foreign labor for this purpose must file petitions to be reviewed by the U.S. Labor Department, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the State Department, as part of a three-step process.
On these petitions, employers must state why the employment of foreign workers won’t negatively affect the working conditions and pay of U.S. workers in similar jobs.
In March 2010, the Labor Department implemented new regulations for H-2A visas, in an effort to strengthen worker protections and access to temporary agriculture jobs. David Roberts, a Labor Department spokesman, said these changes bring the program back to the way it was run prior to 2008.
“We think the program is working well for those who use it,” he said, adding that opponents of the changes need to understand the regulations were put into place to protect the rights of the workers.
Joe Young, executive director of the Goffstown-based New England Apple Council and an H-2A reform proponent, said responses to petitions were delayed an average of 22 days in 2010, thus affecting farming operations for some employers.
When asked about such complaints, David Roberts said earlier this year that the Labor Department implemented a more flexible process to aid employers in avoiding delays.
“These revised procedures have already significantly reduced the number of appeals filed, with only seven appeals filed in the last quarter of fiscal year 2011,” he said in a statement.
Young’s Apple Council, a nonprofit association of apple growers throughout New England, has paired up with organizations such as the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform and the National Council of Agriculture Employers to promote guest worker and immigration program reform at the federal level.
“We’ve been very active in trying to reform H-2A,” Young said, adding that their efforts have received mixed results. “When you deal with Congress, you win some, you lose some.”
In 2010, the Agriculture Coalition, which partners with the New England Apple Council and other agricultural groups, spent $90,000 lobbying Congress in favor of H-2A reform and three bills related to agricultural employment.
While none of these bills passed last year, the affiliated organizations spent at least $50,000 on lobbying between January and June of this year, according to reports filed with the secretary of the U.S. Senate. This money was spent even though proponents of reform do not expect legislation on the H-2A issue to move in the near future.
“We are working towards better H-2A standards in Congress,” said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council – an organization that has worked closely with the New England Apple Council to lobby Congress in favor of H-2A reform.
Composed of around 300 members, including farmers and larger agricultural organizations, the National Council recently conducted a survey about the effects of the H-2A program, which it plans to submit to Congress to back up complaints about the current guest worker program.
According to the survey, 42 percent of growers, from different industries across the country, reported they won’t participate in the H-2A program in 2012, as it is “too administratively burdensome or costly.”
The survey also found a majority of deficiency notices to H-2A applicants, which delayed the hiring for 72 percent of farmers, were given for “small errors and inconsistencies” in the application – more than those issued for low wage rates and drug checks.
Chip Hardy, a co-owner of Brookdale Fruit Farm in Hollis, said that although his farm has yet to encounter delays in the H-2A hiring process, H-2A petitions and paperwork were both expensive and time-consuming with each petition costing around $300 and requiring the employer to provide or housing and transportation.
“It is quite costly,” he said of the H-2A program. “But it’s also the only way people can get dependable labor.”
Earlier this year, Roberts of Meadow Ledge Farm fell victim to two separate delays in H-2A visa applications.
Roberts said if visa approvals continue to be delayed or denied, then he would have to consider either switching over to a strictly pick-your-own apple farm, which currently accounts for only 20 percent of his crop, or laying off the domestic workers who sell apples and perform other farm duties.
“(The H-2A workers) are here earning (their money) and doing us a favor by putting my other 20 people to work,” he said.