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Rob Valicoff used H-2A guest workers for the first time this year, hoping to ensure a legal work force and to avoid a major harvest disruption.

Rob Valicoff used H-2A guest workers for the first time this year, hoping to ensure a legal work force and to avoid a major harvest disruption.

With seasonal labor becoming scarce, more tree fruit producers are using the H-2A program, a federal temporary foreign guest-worker program, to ensure a legal work force. The program is costly and cumbersome, but it can work for some.

Stemilt Management, Inc., in Wenatchee, Washington, hired foreign guest workers to get its apples picked last harvest, but general manager Mike Robinson fears the high costs of the H-2A program might not be sustainable for the tree fruit industry in the long term.

The main advantage of the program is that the grower has a known number of workers during the time they’re here, he said. And they’re not looking over their shoulders all the time, because they’re here legally with visas and passports.

This was the first season that Stemilt used the program.

Every prospective guest worker must be interviewed at a U.S. Consulate in Mexico, and Robinson said it seemed to be difficult for people to get interview appointments. As a result, the 83 guest workers who came to Stemilt were delayed and didn’t arrive until September 23.

“We learned the time lines for this program are very long,” said Robinson. “To make it economical, we need to have a more reliable system for getting them through when they’re supposed to be here,” he said.

But one of the major drawbacks is the high cost. Stemilt built housing to accommodate the workers. Robinson said when the workers arrived, having ridden in a bus for 52 hours, they had no money, no bedding, and no food.

“We had to give them money the day they got here so they could eat,” he said. “You have to be ready, willing, and able to take these people in, and transport them, house them, feed them, and clothe them.”

Another issue is that the workers are not experienced, and there was quite a range in skill level, he said. “Some are just dynamite folks, and some are slower than molasses in January.”

He said the company would analyze its costs and experiences with the guest workers this year before deciding what to do next season. He’s not sure that the H-2A program is the answer to the U.S. fruit industry’s labor problems.

“The answer is that, as a country, we need to recognize that there’s a whole bunch of work here that folks in this country don’t want to do, and we have to compete somehow in the world economy,” he said. “How do I compete in a world market with high-cost labor and with a system that’s set up to induce high costs, rather than to provide a labor supply at a reasonable cost?”

Another first-timer

Rob Valicoff, president of the growing and packing operation Valicoff Fruit Company, Inc., at Wapato, Washington, brought in 15 workers for the 2006 apple harvest through the H-2A program. He’d already left 10 to 15 percent of his Bing cherries unpicked because of a labor shortage and didn’t want a repeat during apple harvest. A tight labor supply had allowed workers to move around looking for better pay.

“There used to be some loyalty when someone gave you a job,” Valicoff said. “Now, people are jumping around. Two days from finishing, they take off. Or if the neighbor’s paying $2 a bin more, they’ll take off.”

Valicoff grows and packs 350,000 boxes of soft fruits and 600,000 boxes of apples annually. He employs between 75 and 80 year-round employees at several ranches that he’s a partner in, and needs closer to 400 people at harvest.

On June 18, he applied for 20 workers from Mexico under the H-2A program, hoping to have them by Gala harvest in mid-August. He had to resubmit his application for 19 people when one local person applied for a job, even though the worker did not show up.

Homeland Security screens prospective guest workers before they enter the United States, and four who had been recruited for Valicoff were rejected. Fifteen made it, and arrived in Yakima in mid-September to work the remaining seven weeks of harvest.

It cost Valicoff close to $600 per person to recruit and provide transportation. Because they were only working for him for a few weeks, the per-hour cost was relatively high.

Next season, he hopes to employ about 35 guest workers from March until the end of October, to make it more worthwhile. He’s planning to build on-farm housing so that he doesn’t need to transport them between home and work every day. He said this year, the bussing cost two and a half times as much as the housing.

He’ll apply for guest workers 80 to 95 days before he needs them. “Come cherry time next year, I want to make sure all my cherries get picked and not be held hostage every day about money,” he said.

He’s convinced that a guest-worker program is the answer to U.S. orchardists’ labor difficulties and notes that growers in the eastern United States have been using the H-2A program successfully for many years. He thinks 25 to 40 percent of Washington’s work force might be guest workers next year.

“We should have been doing this ten years ago,” he said.

If growers had been recruiting through the H-2A program, it would have driven workers back to Mexico, he believes. Growers would have had a steady, reliable source of documented workers, who would have returned home afterwards. The guest workers seemed to like the arrangement, though they would have liked to work longer, he said. Some hope to return as guest workers next year.

Local workers would also prefer to come in through the guest-worker program, he said, because if they go back to Mexico and then return illegally, they have to pay a smuggler between $2,000 and $3,000 to get them across the border. However, a person who has previously entered the United States illegally would not qualify to come back as a guest worker because they have broken the law.

Seasoned H-2A user

Lamont Fruit Farms in Albion, New York, has used guest workers sporadically since 1974. Last season, about three-fourths of their work force, or 70 workers, came from Mexico through the H-2A program.

Fresh-market apples are the main crop grown at the 600-acre Lamont Fruit Farms located in western New York, and owned by brothers George and Roger Lamont and their partner, Rod Farrow, production manager.

George, who is now semiretired, said that their labor strategy has been to develop a work force evenly split between domestic and H-2A workers.

“But in recent years, we haven’t been able to keep the numbers up of the domestic workers and have had to rely more heavily on H-2A.”

The number-one advantage of the H-2A program is that the workers are legal, George said. Their work force was not bothered when the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement audited New York farmers during the recent fall harvest. “ICE picked up 200 illegal workers in a four-county area. Our own foreman, who is legal and has worked for us for 15 years, was stopped during that time by ICE on the highway four times.”

He added that using H-2A workers is the only real way to know that workers are here legally.

In 1998, U.S. immigration agents raided Lamont Fruit, George recalled. “It was early in September, and before the raid, we thought that about 75 percent of our labor force was legal. When we were raided, it was just the opposite, and we lost our most experienced people.”

Other advantages of the program include labor availability, peace of mind, and fixed labor costs, he explains. “With a tight labor market, you don’t have to wonder if any workers will show up. Also, it locks in the cost of labor. Workers can’t strike in the middle of harvest for $5 more per bin or leave to go down the road for higher wages.

“And by using H-2A workers, we can leave local workers for the smaller growers who cannot handle the paperwork and other requirements of the program,” he added. Lamont Fruit is one of the largest tree fruit growers in their area.

Happy

At one time, most of the H-2A workers on the East Coast came from Jamaica, he said. Although some tree fruit growers still source Jamaican H-2A workers, George said their workers now come from Mexico. By using Mexico as a source country, families can often be brought together. Many of the same people come back through the program year after year.

George said they are able to recruit quality, trained workers who show up and are there to work every day, even when it’s raining and 40 degrees cold. “The bottom line is that we’re very happy with the H-2A workers. They’re terrific people.”

But the program has drawbacks, he said. Growers can become the target of “do good” organizations that provide legal services and have a social justice agenda.

Housing is also a major issue. The Lamonts have housing, but not always enough. This year, they rented houses and apartments for their H-2A workers. And there is also a mound of paperwork involved in the expensive program.

Asked if the Lamonts have calculated the cost differences between domestic and H-2A workers, George answered, “No, because we don’t want to know.”