H-2A Needs A Better Way

Most growers agree the H-2A guestworker program is not functioning well and should be streamlined. In its current form, many growers avoid the program entirely. Today, only about 75,000 workers participate in the program, while some estimates put illegal immigrants working on America’s farms at 800,000.

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To make the program more user-friendly, the Bush Administration has proposed changes, which are currently up for review. The industry has welcomed some of the proposed changes, like attestatsion, which should eliminate paperwork for both growers and the government. However, some suggest the proposed changes will create more problems than they solve.

No Improvement Here

H-2A USA, a company that specializes in helping growers bring in guestworkers under H-2A, knows the labor program inside and out. Mike Nobles, CEO of H-2A USA, provided comments on the changes in a letter to the Department of Labor. The letter addresses point-by-point problems with the suggested changes, concluding each with the verbage: “No improvement here.”

One of the biggest problems is the fee increases with no cap on per-worker charges. In the letter, Nobles states: “The application fees will increase from $100 to $200 for the basic application plus the ‘per worker’ fee increases from $10 (with a $1,000 cap) to $100 per worker (with no cap). As an example of the exorbitant increase, a farmer who uses 400 workers is now paying $1,000 (a $100 app. fee and $900 fee for the 400 workers). Now that fee becomes $200 for the application fee and $100 for each worker or $40,200. This single change will all but kill the entire H-2A program.”

Increasing the application time from 45 days to 75 days also could create problems for some growers, because it would require them to submit applications for workers before they even plant in some cases. “This creates an administrative nightmare as farmers and contractors try to revise dates and the number of workers needed for the season,” Nobles states.

Housing Horror

One of the biggest challenges of the current H-2A structure is securing suitable housing for guestworkers. The attempt to fix the problem with housing vouchers opens the door for abuse and implementation problems.

Nobles’ letter states: “These changes don’t adequately address such issues as: What landlord would be willing to accept a voucher in lieu of cash rent payments? Is State Workforce Agencies (SWA) inspection required in advance of workers’ selection? If it is, there is no improvement here. If workers select their own housing, where do they live during the selection process? If housing is not inspected and approved by the SWA in advance, what prevents housing abuses? If workers select their own housing, they may be spread out over a large area, making daily transportation to the work site almost impossible.”

Dollar Differences

Some growers have argued that current H-2A rules don’t allow for wage rates that are reflective of regional differences. The proposed changes would base the adverse effect wage rate on 500 locations across the country rather than the current 18 regions.

While the move would provide more flexibility in setting wages, Nobles argues the downside in his letter: “Multiple regional wage rates serve to create payroll problems and a source for abuses. Should a farmer harvest crops in more than one regional area, which wage rate does he pay? There could be charges of discrimination if the workers doing the same work for the same farmer are paid at different rates. In addition, the National Processing Center is to provide the offered wage rate to the employer. This wage request will have to be submitted as early as 160 to 180 days prior to the job order request to receive the required information. In the citrus industry, a new H-2A request will have to be started before last season’s workers have even completed the current season’s harvest.”

Whether the program stays as is or is changed, Nobles contends an overhaul of the entire immigrant-worker system is needed. “We fully support the AgJOBS bill and a path to citizenship, however, until Congress passes such legislation, we need to see real improvement in the H-2A program,” he concludes.