Housing is a significant expense for growers using the H-2A program. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

Housing is a significant expense for growers using the H-2A program. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

For growers facing a worker shortage, the federal H-2A program is certainly a headache, but with careful planning and execution the program can be incredibly useful, growers were told at an industry conference.

Those who gathered at the Washington Growers League annual meeting heard many reasons why the H-2A program is a pain—exacting paperwork, costs, burdensome rules, and a bewildering process. No one would call it lovable. But since it’s the only program for temporary employment of foreign nationals in agriculture, growers might as well do their best with the system.

The audience in January in Yakima, Washington, heard from one grower and from consultants with MasLabor, located in Lovingston, Virginia, who call themselves the leading provider of services to navigate the system. A Washington State Department of Agriculture official also said his agency wants growers to succeed with H-2A.

Troy Frostad of Mt. Adams Orchards in White Salmon, Washington, says the system is worth the trouble if a grower takes care setting up the program, defining work schedules, and looking for workers who have experience with tree fruit. Frostad urged growers to start small, expect that some workers won’t work out, but in time good workers will return year after year.

Also speaking about H-2A at the meeting was Ignacio Marquez, community liason with the Washington Department of Agriculture, who stressed his agency’s willingness to assist growers with the H-2A process. “It’s cumbersome and at times makes no sense, but the law is the law,” Marquez said. “So how do you help people understand it and best use it?”

Frostad said he got a crash course in H-2A. Some years ago, he said his boss announced that their farm had a big problem with labor. Go “figure out H-2A,” Frostad was told. “It’s not an easy program to follow,” says Frostad. “You can’t go halfway. You have to make a commitment that you are in the program or not.”

Libby Whitley Fulton and Dave Fulton, owners of MasLabor, said their expertise derives from helping growers in 20 different states for more than 20 years. H-2A is showing huge growth, Dave Fulton said.

The regulatory environment had become more supportive for farmers. But even so, the managers of a farm have to recognize the obligations around H-2A and fully commit to meet them. Growers face liabilities if their practices are discriminatory or unfair, Dave Fulton cautioned.

Whitley Fulton outlined steps required of employers using H-2A, with specific paperwork required in stages leading up to the planned arrival of approved workers. One form is required for Day 60, another for Day 45 and so on, with certifications and approvals needed in a timely way.

Between Days 45 and 30, designated housing for guest workers must be inspected and approved, for example. As the process in the United States continues, a related process gets underway in the guest worker’s home country for interviews and visa applications. The State Department screens out any individual who has previously entered the U.S. illegally.

Frostad said MasLabor designated an agent in Mexico to assist worker applicants there with processes and transportation. A caseworker kept Frostad informed of progress on all the moving pieces of the process.

What’s this help cost?

MasLabor says a rough estimate would be $3,625 “per job order or contract, regardless of the number of guest workers on the contract.” Most employers would use a single job order in a year; additional job orders are highly discounted. Other costs would include items that in the past were paid by workers but are now paid by employers. MasLabor says those fees can be $420 per worker, nearly half of which is the State Department’s fee for a single visa.

Frostad says a significant additional cost is housing. His farm has worker housing for up to 170 people. In 2008, he spent an estimated $8,500 per bed to build housing. His total expenses were more than offset by the added help at harvest time, he said.

Dave Fulton said the results come from bringing back good workers year after year.

“Every one of these workers is motivated and will work his butt off,” he said.

H-2A gets its share of complaints but it’s not about to go away. Congress shows no signs of authorizing a replacement program. “We’re probably stuck with what we’ve got,” Dave Fulton said.

MasLabor is not the only provider of H-2A services. There are dozens of H-2A agents in the U.S., says Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League. Some companies have in-house expertise. In Washington State, the largest provider of H-2A assistance is the Washington Farm Labor Association, said Gempler. •


Visit the Washington Farm Labor Association at www.wafla.org Visit MasLabor at www.maslabor.com