From UnionLeader.com, Simon Rios, Sunday News Correspondent, 27 Nov 2011.
HOLLIS, NH — Zacharias Mitchell has been working the soil of Lull Farm for 15 seasons, spending eight months of each year here and four back home in Jamaica. His job involves every aspect of farming, from tilling to planting to mulching, weeding and harvesting — and just about everything in between.
Mitchell, 50, is one of thousands who come to the United States under the federal H-2A visa program for agricultural workers. Unlike about half of the other farm laborers in the United States, he works legally. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 50 percent of the country’s fruit and vegetable pickers are undocumented, though the figure could be as high as 70 percent, according to groups such as Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for migrant and seasonal farmworkers.
“When I get (back to Jamaica), I don’t have to do nothing,” Mitchell smiled. “I only get a shower, and they call me to the dining table for my supper.”
Mitchell said because he works in the United States, earning a prevailing farm wage of $10.25 an hour, his family lives well back on the island.
“My fingers work to the bone,” he said, sitting with co-workers peeling hundreds of heads of garlic for fall planting, “and my family is so happy. They live in a big house, they got everything to eat, TV to watch. Daddy pay the bills. So they doing all right.”
But it’s not all roses for the Jamaican workers of Hollis. This year, the IRS came looking for taxes for the first time in the decades-long history of the H-2A program, not just for 2010 but also for 2008 and 2009.
For Mitchell, this means about $3,000 in back taxes.
Is it fair for the IRS to tax the H-2A workers?
“I don’t know if it’s fair,” Mitchell shrugged. “We work very hard, and they say we need money and pay now, so we have no choice.”
Peggy Riley, IRS spokesman, said anyone who earns income in the United States has to pay taxes on that income. “And businesses that pay workers have been required to report that income to the IRS,” she said. Asked why the IRS was going after Mitchell for back taxes now, Riley said she was
prohibited by federal law from discussing any individual’s private tax matters.
However, these workers are exempt from U.S. Social Security and Medicare taxes, according to the IRS.
The Jamaicans live in camp-like conditions.
“It’s not easy; you feel a lot of pain when you get off work at night,” Mitchell said. “Take a shower, get something to eat, and then straight to bed.”
Families don’t visit
Oral Chambers, 33, has been working on Lull for six seasons. One gripe he has with the H-2A program is that it doesn’t allow his family to visit.
“Your family can’t come here,” he said in thick Kingston English. “We been working hard here.”
Mitchell said he’s attempted to get a visa for his wife and sons, but each time the American consulate in Jamaica refused.
Nor do these men get health care or other benefits many American workers enjoy. But the money is enough to keep them coming back.
“I didn’t have an income in Jamaica when I was a young guy,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t have nothing, so coming to America was like a dream come true.”
Mitchell said on average he makes $23,000 at Lull — not a king’s income in Jamaica, but certainly enough for a middle-class living on the island.
When he first came to the states, he worked in the sugar plantations of Florida, “until they don’t need no man no more,” he said, referring to the replacement of muscle by machine. Next, it was picking tobacco in Connecticut and other work in New York. For 15 years now, Mitchell has called Hollis home from May through December.
But Mitchell and the seven other Jamaicans who work on Lull live in doubt as to whether they’ll be able to return next year. They worry that stiffer regulations by the U.S. Department of Labor have made it increasingly difficult to obtain H-2A visas.
Lull Farm’s owner, Dave Orde, attributes his farm’s growth over the last two decades to the contribution of Jamaican muscle. This year has been no exception. The picking season was one of the nicest in awhile, making up for the last two, which were “absolutely miserable,” Orde said, because of drought last year and extreme rainfall the year before.
The federal bureaucracy didn’t help matters, he said.
“Every farm in New England had issues with the U.S. Department of Labor because that’s who authorizes our work orders,” Orde said.
“I still don’t understand why our government doesn’t think we need offshore help, whether it’s Mexican or whatever, but the American people do not want to do agricultural work.”
Orde said the Labor Department assumed farmers had enough help and delayed visas for five of his Jamaican employees. Several had been slated to arrive June 1, but weren’t allowed entry until Sept. 1, he said.
“They’re trying to force local labor on us,” Orde said. “We are a service-oriented society, or high-tech or whatever it is, but (local) people will not get down on their hands and knees and muck in the soil like they used to.”
The way Orde sees it, the federal government has its priorities upside down. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides vast subsidies to large-scale producers of corn and tobacco, he said, the Department of Labor imposes unsustainable audits and prohibitions on small farms.
However, David Roberts, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor, said the requirement that farmers must first advertise available jobs here in the United States before asking for foreign laborers is meant to protect American workers. “Our role is to make sure growers have access to foreign labor, but only when they’ve first recruited U.S. workers and given them a fair opportunity to secure the jobs,” he said.
He also said program changes that took effect in 2010, requiring farmers to prove they tried to hire Americans first, returned the H-2A program to what it had been for 23 years. The Bush administration changed the program in late 2008, easing some of those requirements, but under the Obama administration, the program reverted back to the previous rules in March 2010, he said.
In the 13-month period in between, Roberts said, farmers were allowed to simply “attest” that they couldn’t find American workers; now they have to have documentation of their efforts.
“We believe that it achieves a reasonable balance between meeting the season work force needs of growers while protecting the rights of agricultural workers, both U.S.-S and foreign-born. That’s our mandate from Congress,” he said.
The problem is not exclusive to the Granite State.
A recent survey by the National Council of Agricultural Employers found that H-2A delays resulted in $320 million in losses for American farmers in 2010. Farmers organizations and associations across the country have been petitioning Congress to do something to combat what some call a “crimson tide” of H-2A red tape.
Roberts said while he’s heard anecdotally that there were delays this year, the data tell “a little bit of a different story.”
In the last quarter of fiscal year 2011 (ending Sept. 30), he said, 83 percent of H-2A applications were certified at least 30 days before the farmers needed the workers. “And 93 percent of all appplications for fiscal year ‘11 were certified, covering more than 74,000 workers nationwide,” he said. “So we know that employers with legitimate needs are successfully using the program.”
Roberts said one of the most common reasons for applications to be denied is that an employer has failed to provide the necessary documents. “If user error is the most common reason for a delay, that tells a different story than ‘something’s wrong in Washington,’” he said.
The thousands of farm workers allowed into the United States each year remain a fundamental part of the U.S. agricultural economy, including the economy of farms such as Lull.
“The economics of it is pretty big,” said Ernie Roberts, a board member of the of New England Apple Council. He estimated that the work performed by the Jamaican apple pickers on his farm spawns employment for 75 other people, ranging from those who make and sell apple pies to the mechanics who fix his farm vehicles.
Ernie Roberts said H-2A delays have affected every New England farm that uses H-2A workers. Roberts’ orchard, Meadow Ledge Farm in Loudon, uses nine Jamaicans. If the program was canceled, he said, he would lose 50 percent of his crops.
Orde said he’s in the same situation.
“If they pull this program, I don’t know what we’d do,” he said. “I really think we’d have to go out of businesses. I really think it’s that bad.”
But the DOL’s David Roberts said while it’s difficult to predict what a future Congress could do, there is no reason to believe the H-2A program is threatened currently. “We know that employers with legitimate needs are successfully using the program,” he said, “and our role in that process is to make any improvements we can to make sure that process is fair and reliable.”
Asked what might happen in years to come, Lull laborer Mitchell said, “We don’t know what the future hold for us. Maybe we get caught up in the Rapture, go to heaven.”