One of the biggest of the many problems with the H-2A foreign guest-worker program, from the grower’s point of view, is the inability of the Department of Labor to clearly provide answers to questions about the rules, says Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association.
Two agencies within the department are involved with the H-2A program: the Education Training Administration, which administers the labor certification, and the Wage and Hour Division of the Employment Standards Administration, which enforces worker contracts. Fazio said the two do not communicate with each other, and, in some cases, the Wage and Hour Division has tried to enforce rules that are not in the program regulations.
Fazio, whose organization processes the largest number of H-2A applications on the West Coast, says he can’t always recommend that growers use the program. He estimates that about 2,500 foreign workers came to work in Washington State through H-2A last season. It’s estimated that the state needs 40,000 workers just to harvest the state’s apple crop.
Despite the need for more workers, Fazio said he can’t always recommend that a grower use the H-2A program.
“I don’t like to recommend it unless people are really serious about following all the rules and regulations,” he said. “If they don’t have good HR (human resource) procedures in place, this is not a program for them. H-2A is not for sissies.”
Employers often encounter difficulties following the rules, but those who do decide to use the program should be considered heroes, not criminals, he said, because 99 percent of West Coast agriculture employers just hire workers who are already in the United States, probably illegally.
“It’s not their fault,” he added. “But we have this work force that’s a national embarrassment because 70 percent of the workers are not eligible to be here.”
Fazio said people who are using the H-2A program include both small and large growers. Most stick with it once they use it, although some dropped out in recent years when new regulations made it more difficult and expensive to use. Some have been able to recruit the same guest-workers to return year after year and depend on them.
But as larger companies, such as Gebbers Farms in Brewster, Washington, and McDougall and Sons in Wenatchee, Washington, ramp up their H-2A participation, he foresees it leading to difficulties in the industry.
“You’re going to create two classes—which we’re trying not to have—a class of people who are hiring legal workers and a class of people who are hiring illegal workers, and then we’ll have battles between farmers,” he predicted.