Mollie Hollibough has set up a new company to help growers recruit H-2A workers. Photo by Nanette Lee.

Mollie Hollibough has set up a new company to help growers recruit H-2A workers. Photo by Nanette Lee.

Several companies are helping growers to comply with the complexities of the federal foreign guest-worker program. Employers using the H-2A guest-worker program services of the International Labor Management Corporation come from across the nation and produce a wide range of crops, says a company representative.

Stan Eury of the North Carolina-based labor management company said that they represent peach growers in South Carolina and Georgia, apple growers in New Jersey, North Carolina, and New York, and a tree fruit grower-shipper in Washington State.

He noticed a significant tightening of the East Coast labor supply after last year’s hurricane season. That’s when previous agricultural workers found employment related to the cleanup and rebuilding in places like Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, damaged from flooding and hurricanes.

“I’m alarmed by the trend of agriculture losing labor to construction and other jobs after the hurricane,” he said, adding that many farmworkers are leaving agriculture and seeking jobs with better conditions or better pay.

“We are seeing an increase in the number of employers seeking help with the H-2A program,” Eury said, however, the total number of guest workers still represent a fraction of the total farm work force. He estimated that approximately 40,000 H-2A workers are annually brought into the United States, compared to a seasonal farm work force of 1.25 million.

“The H-2A program is functional and it does work,” he said. “But it still needs fixing.”

In Washington State, seven tree fruit producers requested a total of 831 foreign guest workers this year, according to the state’s Department of Employment Security. That’s more workers than were requested last year, but fewer than the 1,019 requested in 2004 when the state harvested a record apple crop, reported Oscar Trevino, an H-2A specialist with Employment Security.

The state’s apple growers employ up to 37,000 pickers during peak harvest, Employment Security reports indicate.

Trevino said the department had been expecting more H-2A requests this season because of a reported shortage of workers in the tree fruit industry, but it didn’t happen.

Until recently, there were few H-2A applications from Washington. The numbers increased in 2004 when the labor contractor Global Horizons began bringing in workers from Thailand. However, the company lost its state farm-labor contractor’s license because of alleged tax and labor-law violations and did not bring in workers this year.

The Northwest Growers Association, which is affiliated with the Washington Growers League, has been helping growers with H-2A applications since 1999. It does all the required advertising for workers, as well as interviewing and hiring of employees. It handles the government-relations aspects with the U.S. Department of Labor and works with a recruiter in Mexico. The association helped four Washington employers bring in several hundred guest workers during the 2006 season.

New company

Mollie Hollibough of Yakima has set up a new company called the Washington Farm Labor Source to help Farm Bureau members recruit workers through the H-2A program. Yakima fruit grower and packer Rob Valicoff, who brought in 15 workers for the 2006 apple harvest, was her first client.

By October, she was working with four other growers who are hoping to have guest workers in 2007. “Basically, I take care of all the paperwork for them,” she said.

And with several state and federal agencies involved in the process, the paperwork is considerable. Hollibough recommends that growers start the process at least 90 days before they will need the workers.

In the past, many farmers have dismissed the H-2A program as being too expensive or impractical to use. But Hollibough said growers now fear that, with the potential building of a border fence and increased border security, they will not have a seasonal labor supply, and the H-2A program is the only way they can have a guaranteed work force.

“It’s not any less onerous than it was before, but when you’re looking at losing a crop, you’re willing to do a lot of things,” she said. “They have to do something different. We haven’t had the labor shortage that we have now. We’re looking at farmers having invested large sums of money to grow a viable crop and not being able to have someone to harvest it. Other than the H-2A, there are not many other opportunities to hire a stable work force.”

However, the H-2A program is far from ideal, she added. “The most difficult thing about it from my perspective is they do not use the technology that’s available. They use snail mail. They don’t use e-mail. When you’re working with a perishable crop, you need to know the answers immediately.”

Legal challenges

Wapato, Washington, tree fruit producer John Verbrugge agrees that the program and the industry’s approach to it need changing.

In 2005, Verbrugge contracted with Global Horizons to bring in H-2A workers. However, in 2006 he stayed away from the guest worker program in part because of substantial hail damage—he lost 14,000 bins of fruit to hail and didn’t require as many workers—and because of legal challenges involving his orchard’s participation with Global Horizons.

“It is so difficult to do on your own as an individual. It’s so frustrating to growers,” Verbrugge said, adding that growers are penalized for doing the right thing and hiring legal workers through the H-2A program. But they can also be the target of federal racketeering lawsuits if they do nothing and hire illegal workers through traditional practices.

“We need to work on this issue as an industry together. That’s the only way we will be able to make it work. As an individual, the risk and liability is huge. You have no protection and not enough clout.”