Online Only: Labor Strategies In Uncertain Times
Finding temporary work can be a struggle, but the H-2A program is a legal solution for growers in need.
March 27, 2009
Growers know that in good times and bad, they only get one payday per year.
Making it count means having the right number of workers, on time, for seasonal labor. If you miss your window and your paycheck once harvest season is finished, it’s over until next year.
In the current economic climate, growers really have only three options (and only two are legal) when it comes to hiring temporary help:
• Employ U.S. workers and then pray enough of them show up to complete the job.
• Hire illegal aliens and hope Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) doesn’t stage a raid, which could effectively shut down the grower’s business, perhaps permanently, and at minimum trigger a ruined season.
• Craft a winning solution and get a good night’s sleep: Work with an employer agent specializing in the H-2A program, the only legal avenue for employing temporary, non-immigrant laborers.
The H-2A visa allows U.S. agricultural employers who expect a shortage of domestic workers to bring non-immigrant foreign workers to the United States to perform agricultural labor on a temporary or seasonal basis (defined as less than a year). It’s time consuming and can be expensive. It involves multiple regulatory hurdles. But the people who depend on the program know it works – with mutual benefits to employers and workers alike.
“One strategy we endorse is to consider diversifying your workforce,” says Libby Whitley, an established H-2A expert whose company, MasLabor, works with U.S. employers to solve their temporary labor needs. “Consider targeted use of H-2A.” Whitley says many growers split their workforce equally between U.S. workers, when available, and guest workers, while others vary the ratio depending on how many workers they need and who actually shows up to work.
Some employers may fear hiring illegal aliens. Some may never have had any other workforce yet face a very real threat if federal law enforcement agents arrive unexpectedly.
“Consider transitioning to a guaranteed legal program,” Whitley says. “You can do that in a very targeted, specific way.”
A Solid Option
Another reason to secure workers with H-2A is it helps answer the question of the availability of legal U.S. workers. Employers are required to advertise in local newspapers about the availability of seasonal work and prove domestic labor is inadequate or unavailable before seeking temporary non-immigrant workers. And if sufficient U.S. laborers are not available or are unwilling to work, H-2A remains a viable option. Labor costs are locked in by contract, and workers typically live on site until it is time for them to return home. So there is no risk of a mid-harvest strike for more money.
Agents handle the application paperwork, coordinate with labor recruiters in foreign countries, track the progress of visa approvals and ensure the temporary workers arrive on the job site as close as possible to the first day they are needed. Professional agents make it their job to stay on top of the ever-evolving H-2A rules and regulations, while working to understand an employer’s labor needs so the right workers are hired.
In turn, the workers are employed within a legal system which protects their rights and gives them job information up front. They know before accepting the jobs where they’re going in the United States, what kind of work they’ll be doing and how much they can expect to be paid. Satisfied workers are key to an agricultural employer’s success each year. And a quality agent, Whitley says, helps ensure workers are treated correctly in the process.
“It’s a guaranteed legal, progressive program,” Whitley says. “The options are to hire domestic workers, who may not show up or last through the season, or illegal migrant laborers who come with high risk and uncertain outcomes.” Whitley is quick to add she always likes to see an H-2A job go to any U.S. citizen who wants it, but the reality is few Americans are willing to do agricultural work.
Even with unemployment rates on the rise, Whitley doubts U.S. workers will meet the need filled by non-immigrants on temporary work visas.
“The workers aren’t available in the numbers needed to meet seasonal labor demands in agriculture,” she said.
“Employers who have every reason to expect to be successful, who are smart, progressive and follow the law would do well to consider a 100 percent legal worker program. Even though the regulatory environment is tough, the smart money is looking at H-2A.”