COLUMBUS — “There need to be some changes in H-2A, we all agree on that,” said masLabor Program Manager Kerry D. Scott. “[But] this Congress or this administration [is not likely] to do anything in the way of comprehensive immigration reform in your lifetime.” That said, there are ways produce farmers can effectively employ temporary, seasonal workers in their operations.
Scott’s company, masLabor, specializes in knowing the agriculture aspects of the H-2A program and in helping American farmers team up with groups of temporary workers. He presented to a breakout session of the Ohio Produce Network Jan. 16 in Columbus. Scott’s session was filled with producers from the Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association annual meeting.
The H-2A program began as the Bracero Program on Aug. 4, 1942, following the ratification of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement between the United States and Mexico. The program (bracero means manual labor) was created to allow Mexican laborers to come to the United States temporarily because World War II had created a shortage of farm laborers to harvest the crops. According to Scott, the rules of the game have remained essentially unchanged since that time.
Officially designated as a two-part workers’ program, called H-2A (for agriculture) and H-2B (for landscaping and construction) during the Reagan era, it now extends to temporary workers from countries other than Mexico. The open-range sheep and cattle ranchers were able to add language permitting them to bring in workers year-round to tend their livestock.
The produce workers are only permitted to work ten consecutive months at a specific job. Most of the Hispanic workers who work with masLabor take the opportunity to go back to Mexico for a vacation to visit with their families. Some of the workers, however, take short-term jobs to fill in the time until their long-term employer needs them again. After three years, they have to leave for a time before they can work again.
General Requirements for H-2A
Most of the preliminary work to hire temporary workers deals with government forms and regulations. For masLabor to create a team, Scott recommends that farmers contact the firm 120 days before the team will be needed. Three agencies have to clear the paperwork for these workers, but most of the focus is on the farm, not the worker. The Departments of Labor, State, and Homeland Security are involved.
Farmers have to prove that they have tried to hire local individuals to do the work. This can be a real hardship for the farmer, according to Scott. “If you’re a farmer on the East coast where the size of the newspaper ad you are required to publish will cost $3,000 for a one-time publication, it makes it more painful, when no one responds to the ad.” Scott said that any local temporary workers who do apply “rarely stay more than a day or two and then you need to replace them.”
Contracting for a team may seem complicated but masLabor helps its farm clients to get through the paperwork and can advise on specific advertising details. After the farm has completed the advertising and the paperwork to show that local help is not available, the request for visas should be filed 60-75 days ahead of “date of need.”
Once a decision has been made to bring a team, housing must be considered. The employer is required to provide housing for the workers. It must be rent-free, and must pass an inspection 45 days before the team is scheduled to arrive. Scott said that a checklist for the condition of the housing is provided to farmers beginning the program, and that a “new checklist is coming…sometime…,” but he doesn’t know exactly when.
The farm must also provide the workers with transport to grocery stores, laundry facilities, banks and other necessary local concerns. The workers must be contracted at a specific rate of pay and must receive three quarters of the contracted total before they may be released ahead of the end-of-contract date. Farmers must also grant the workers a work-free Sabbath if they request it.
Specifics for Ohio participants
In Ohio, once a worker has a pay stub, it is possible for him/her to obtain a one-year Ohio driver’s license. Scott recommends that the employer provide a van or truck for transport, choose a reliable member of the team who can speak enough English to be understood, and assist that person in getting the license. Then that individual can serve as the team’s transport officer.
Ohio’s minimum wage for temporary workers from outside the United States is $13.26. No Social Security or unemployment insurance is deducted from the workers’ pay. Temporary workers who are legal residents of the United States must, however, have these deductions made.
Questions from the audience
Throughout the presentation, Scott answered questions from the growers present, and frequently deferred for clarifications from those in the room who have worked with teams from masLabor.
One of the questions concerned workers from Jamaica. The grower had worked with Jamaicans before and wondered if masLabor would help him assemble a team of those individuals. Scott replied that while they had very good recommendations for individual workers from Jamaica, they have had problems with the government officials in Jamaica who control the processing of visas and other materials for the workers, so they are no longer working with Jamaica.
Another grower asked what to do if “a guy just walks away and doesn’t come back.” While Scott said he thought that seldom happened, one of his contracted growers said he had about one each year “slip away.” If that happens, Scott said it is necessary to contact the authorities and that masLabor would like to know that has happened also.