Guest worker program finds increased use

JANUARY 17, 2018 01:38 PM

Labor of Love at Church Brothers Oct. 2017; workers harvesting romaine lettuce for Church Brothers Farms were treated to lunch and treat goodie bags as part of the Labor of Love Program.

© Labor of Love/Church Brothers Farms

By Tom Karst
The Packer

As produce growers scramble to find legal help, positions certified under the Department of Labor’s H-2A agricultural guest worker program have expanded 43% in the last two years.

And, with questions about immigration enforcement and reform efforts under the Trump administration, the trend will continue, said Jon DeVaney, vice-chairman of the National Council of Agricultural Employers and executive director of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.

DeVaney said Jan. 16 there is a lot of discussion about what might be included in a Capitol Hill spending bill necessary to avoid a government shutdown January. Some of the possibilities include a fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and possibly other elements relating to immigration reform and enforcement.

“What I’m hearing it is really uncertain what may be included, and there is a strong desire to include a DACA fix and limited funding for border enforcement,” he said. On the other hand, there have been other proposals floated in the House that would do broader immigration reform — including agricultural guest worker program reform and mandatory E-verify.

H-2A growth

A tightening labor market in general — and especially for agriculture — have more growers turning to the H-2A program.

“It is not the easiest program to use, but it is basically the only option available,” he said.

In particular, DeVaney said as the program grows, the Department of Labor is finding it difficult to keep pace with the need for more H-2A workers.

Department of Labor statistics show the number of positions certified for the program have increased from 139,832 in fiscal year 2015 to 200,049 positions in fiscal year 2017, for the year ending Sept. 30.

DeVaney said each year for the past decade or so has seen an increase in H-2A workers and it’s a safe bet it will expand in 2018.

“The more there is discussion around additional internal immigration enforcement, the more employers feel the need to make sure they have workers whose documentation is in order, which necessitates a shift to the H-2A program,” DeVaney said.

The top five states for the H-2A program workers in fiscal year 2017 were Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Washington and California.

The Department of Labor’s list of top ten employers of H-2A workers in fiscal year 2017 were the North Carolina Growers Association, Washington Farm Labor Association, Fresh Harvest Inc., Zirkle Fruit Co., Elkhorn Packing, Stemilt Ag Services LLC, R&R Harvesting, Foothill Packing, Peri & Sons Farms, and the Virginia Agricultural Growers Association.

The top 10 crops for the H-2A program in fiscal year 2017, by positions certified with change compared with a year ago, were:

  • Berries: 21,946 workers, up 11%
  • Apples: 12,697 workers, up 6.3%;
  • Tobacco: 12,534 workers, up 6.3%;
  • Fruits and vegetables: 12,465 workers, up 6.2%;
  • General farm workers: 12,037 workers, up 6%;
  • Melons: 8,535 workers, up 4.3%;
  • Corn: 7,818 workers, up 3.9%;
  • Peppers: 6,903 workers, up 3.5%;
  • Sweet potatoes: 6,662 workers, up 3.3%; and
  • Hay and straw: 6,411 workers, up 3.2%.