WASHINGTON — As the summer growing season approaches, farmers across the county are experiencing widespread frustration over the federal H-2A visa program for seasonal agriculture workers.
In Idaho, farmers such as Jim Little of Emmett say they need immigrant workers from Latin America but that the government is making it too hard for them to follow the rules and employ workers legally instead of hiring border jumpers.
“It seems like they take great joy in piling on minutia and things we have to do,” said Little, a grain and hay farmer whose family has used foreign labor.
A bipartisan group of six U.S. senators, from Idaho, Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Wyoming, recently wrote the Department of Labor to express concerns with the system “and its serious implication on producers and our nation’s food supply.”
Frustration over the visa program helped drive Little’s daughter, Rochelle Oxarango, and her husband mostly out of the Idaho sheep ranching business.
“We needed four new workers from Peru. I started the paperwork in July and our workers didn’t arrive until February,” Oxarango said in an interview. “It’s really hard to depend on a program that takes that long to get workers here. We had to sell most of our sheep last year and this was one of the driving factors, it was just getting too hard to manage the labor situation.”
It’s a growing problem, according to Michaelene Rowe of the Snake River Farmers Association, an Idaho-based group that helps farmers with visa issues. Getting a temporary H-2A visa for a foreign farm worker to work in the United States is a confusing and painful process for an employer who is trying to follow the rules and only hire legal workers, Rowe said.
“This is counterproductive to the national discussion and political rhetoric related to the need to employ only legally documented workers,” she said.
Employers say that to use the program they have to deal with complicated paperwork and go through multiple federal agencies: the Department of Labor, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State. The recent letter to the Labor Department from the six senators – Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Jim Risch, R-Idaho – cited “numerous cases in which unnecessary administrative delays resulted in not having enough labor to perform needed work.”
“Users routinely bring to our attention cases where applications are delayed or denied because of minor discrepancies related to language or officers applying an unreasonable degree of scrutiny that results in costly appeals to taxpayers,” the senators complained. They are asking for the three federal agencies who administer the program to hold regional meetings with farmers around the country to talk about solutions to the problem.
Assistant Labor Secretary Jane Oates said in a written statement that her department has been working with farmers to process applications more efficiently. That includes a revamped Website, an employer handbook and an ombudsman program to deal with issues, she said
She said that the department considers 85 percent of its final decisions on the visas to be issued in a timely manner and that it certifies the vast majority of applications.
The Labor Department reports that it certified 68,088 positions through the program last year. “We know that employers with legitimate needs are successfully using the H-2A program,” Oates said.
It’s not just farmers who have concerns with the H-2A program. The United Farm Workers of America says the foreign workers are easy to abuse.
“The concern is that H-2A workers in agriculture are the most vulnerable, exploitable workers out there, in large part because their ability to remain legally in the United States is entirely dependent on the goodwill of their employer,” said Erik Nicholson, national vice president of the union, which is based in California.
“And there has been case after case where, when workers articulate complaints, be it a lack of hand-washing facilities, toilet paper, underpayment of wages, substandard housing, that rather than responsibly addressing those concerns, the employer retaliates by discharging the worker,” Nicholson said.
The Department of Labor emphasized that growers can obtain the legal foreign labor only after they’ve first recruited U.S. workers and given them a fair shot at the job.
But Idaho growers said that’s part of the problem, with farmers required to hire and train Americans even if they have a Mexican worker ready who’s skilled, experienced and trusted.
Rowe, of the Snake River Farmers Association, said most H-2A users employ some Americans. But she said the required additional U.S. worker recruitment process has turned out to be a ”miserable failure that frustrates most program participants.”
“This often comes from their own experiences when local workers fail to show up, work a few days and quit, or perform work in an unsatisfactory manner,” she said.
Idaho farmer Danny Ferguson has four H-2A workers at his barley, wheat, cattle and specialty hay farm. He said he needs seasonal work and there’s not a surplus of skilled Americans willing to do what it takes. Too often the U.S. workers “are lazy, don’t want to be there, don’t want to put in the time and don’t do anything,” he said.
“The problem with the program is that as long as we have an H-2A employee we basically have an opening on the farm for a U.S. worker,” Ferguson said. “I have to advertise across the nation for U.S. workers. And sometimes we’ll get some people who will come, they want to come out, they want to go to work. But they don’t actually want to work.”