Looking for Labor?
With a national unemployment rate below 4 percent, it is becoming increasingly difficult for specialty crop growers of both edible and ornamental crops to find suitable labor. As other industries, including health care, manufacturing, construction, transportation and warehousing add jobs, the pool of qualified employees continues to dwindle.
In April 2017, President Trump sat down during a Farmers Roundtable with a group of representatives of the agriculture industry including farmers and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. The focus of the meeting was to discuss the issues facing the American agriculture community. The horticulture industry was represented at the roundtable by Tom Demaline, president at Willoway Nurseries in Avon, Ohio. Demaline is the past chairman of the board of AmericanHort.
During the meeting the president signed an executive order establishing an Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity. The purpose of the task force, according to the president’s order, is “to promote economic development and revitalization, job growth, infrastructure, innovation and quality of life issues for rural America.”
Issues discussed during the roundtable included labor, trade and regulatory relief.
“Labor was the number one issue discussed,” says Craig Regelbrugge, senior vice president for industry advocacy and research at AmericanHort. “Labor was the concern of all assembled and was talked about at most length. The conversation really catalyzed what became an effort within the administration involving several agencies that have a stake to look at ways in which they can streamline and improve the H-2A agricultural worker program.”
Although Regelbrugge said there are more growers in the horticulture industry who are not using H-2A at this time, an increasing number are expressing more interest in the program.
“It is cheaper to hire domestic workers who are interested in showing up and doing the work,” he says. “So growers don’t necessarily get excited about the H-2A program until they have to because they simply can’t find enough workers.
“Many people have been waiting on the sidelines, not wanting to implement the H-2A program for various reasons. They are now either actively preparing to or have already initiated the process to implement the program. As H-2A is rapidly becoming more important, there is a regulatory reform initiative that is underway. Whether that initiative is implemented is still uncertain.”
STREAMLINING THE H-2A PROGRAM
The Departments of State, Agriculture, Labor and Homeland Security have initiated a process to modernize the H-2A guest worker program by clarifying and improving the regulations governing the program.
“The Labor Department is where most of the action is,” Regelbrugge says. “Through the rulemaking process, we are likely to see some streamlining and improvement. Some of this will be about the process. Some of it will actually bring rational relief.
“The H-2A program is expensive and at times in the past it has been unreliable. At this point worker approval rates are in the mid-90s. Delays, even though we hold our breath every season, haven’t been much of a problem. Streamlining would certainly help — making sure that all of the processes, the communications back and forth with the agencies, can be done electronically rather than having to send paperwork all over the country.”
Regelbrugge said one example of implementing rational relief in the H-2A program involves the requirement to advertise for workers.
“Under the current program to apply for permission from the Labor Department to use foreign workers through the H-2A program, a company must go through a period where it is actively trying to recruit U.S. workers for job opportunities,” he says. “A component of that active recruitment is the requirement to place multiple advertisements in newspapers in general circulation in the area of intended employment. Some of those ads have to be placed on a Sunday. Not only can the Labor Department require a company to advertise in the area of intended employment, but it can also direct a company to advertise in several other states where the Labor Department claims there might be available labor. This is a time-consuming and expensive process. And rarely does it produce anything.
“One of the streamlining measures being discussed is to move the recruitment process to being done with job postings on electronic job registries. That is a significant cost reduction measure when considering the costs to place newspaper advertisements. If newspaper ads were producing workers, growers would be willing to do this. Rarely are American workers produced from newspaper ads.”
Regelbrugge says one of the biggest physical barriers to using
the program for a lot of growers is the requirement to provide housing.
“The housing doesn’t necessarily need to be on a farm,” he states. “The employer has to provide housing that meets the applicable government standards. For a lot of growers, the investment in housing and the logistics can be a big challenge.
“That is especially true in areas where zoning laws and the ‘not in my backyard syndrome’ make it really difficult. The state of Oregon is a notable example. Zoning laws make it particularly difficult to develop new farm housing. It’s a capital investment problem and it’s a big upfront barrier.”
Although Regelbrugge is optimistic that changes to the H-2A program will be made, he says they are unlikely to impact the horticulture industry this year.
“These types of government programs are tied to the federal government’s fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1,” he says. “The soonest some significant program improvements can be put in place would be Oct. 1 of this year for the 2020 growing season.
“It depends on what the agencies can do from a policy standpoint. For example, facilitating that all communication steps can be done electronically rather than having to deal with paper documents. This is the sort of change that doesn’t require rulemaking. These are internal procedural and policy matters.”
WHAT’S AHEAD? LIKELY MORE OF THE SAME
According to Regelbrugge, historically the H-2A program has been used more widely in the food production industry with vegetables and tobacco.
“We have seen rapid growth in recent years in our industry,” he remarks. “There are some horticulture companies that have been in the program for 20 years. Interestingly the entry of some companies into the program followed an immigration enforcement action.
“During the Clinton administration there was a big wave of work site enforcement around 1996. Growers who lost their experienced labor force due to audits or raids have gone into H-2A and have been in the program ever since. H-2A is very critical to them.”
Regelbrugge says the deteriorating labor situation is forcing everyone to look at a variety of options including mechanizing and automating where possible and reducing labor need overall.
“The law does allow for different employment arrangements with the H-2A program,” he said. “In our industry most of the employment of H-2A workers is direct employment, meaning the owner or company management is employing people directly just like they would employ U.S. workers. That’s the most common method.
“But there are opportunities within the structure of the program to have an H-2A labor contractor (LC) provide the labor. It functions much the same as labor contracting does now where it exists. Labor contracting is big in California where there is a high density of crops, many of which have relatively short harvest seasons. There’s a lot of labor contracting because it’s easier for growers to turn to a contractor. The growers pay a little more, but the labor contractor provides the labor at the time needed and then goes on to the next crop or the next grower. That same thing can happen with the H-2A program.”
Regelbrugge says the industry should be bracing for more worksite enforcement from the Trump administration.
“If a grower came to me and asked if they should participate in H-2A, a component of my answer would be to take a look at the program,” he says. “Figure out what it would take to implement the program. Do some contingency planning in case the worse happens and your company is audited or raided and you lose a large amount of your work force.”
For more information: Craig Regelbrugge, AmericanHort, firstname.lastname@example.org;