Chalmers Carr III doesn’t expect Congressional action on farm labor and immigration issues before the fall elections this year, and he hopes the labor situation won’t get much worse this growing season. If it does get worse this year, however, it might help his cause.
After the elections, he hopes, reforms can come—and he’s positioning himself and more than a thousand other employers of seasonal farm labor to make the case for a reformed guest-worker program.
Carr, who owns Titan Farms in Ridge Spring, South Carolina, and grows more than 5,000 acres of peaches, is organizing employers of H-2A workers into a force called USA Farmers. The words are an acronym for United States Association of Farm, Agribusiness, Ranch & Migrant Employers. A Web site, www.usa-farmers.org, is a place to go for more information or to join up.
Carr says he’d rather be in a tractor cab than doing this kind of work as “volunteer president,” but labor is essential to his farming operation, he needs a legal work force, and he’s worked hard and paid a lot to get one.
Since 1999, he has made the H-2A program work for him—despite enormous obstacles. He is convinced it must be reformed and expanded, no matter what else is done to regulate immigration.
Carr spoke about his efforts to peach growers at the annual meeting of the Michigan Peach Sponsors in Benton Harbor, Michigan, in early March. (An article about Chalmers and Lori Anne Carr and Titan Farms appeared in the July 2011 issue of Good Fruit Grower magazine.)
Carr was an early convert to H-2A, but over the years has found it bureaucratic, cumbersome, expensive, and filled with irritating provisions that make it so hard to use that few farmers use it. U.S. agriculture needs a work force of about 1.5 million, he said. It is estimated that between 750,000 and 1.1 million of them are undocumented or falsely documented people who are in the United States illegally. Yet the legal alternative, the H-2A program, provides only about 70,000 workers a year.
He is convinced that amnesty for existing undocumented workers is not the answer. Once made legal, he said, the hard-working and ambitious quickly leave agricultural work for easier work in other industries. So, amnesty does very little to provide workers for agriculture.
E-verify also does not work, he said. While it may seem to be a barrier to entry of illegal workers, it in fact encourages identity theft since false documents are easy to create and there is no policing of them. The United States has no national identification card program that would provide an official identification card that would make E-verify work.
The program being advocated by USA Farmers would:
—Simplify the H-2A application process, reduce the bureaucracy, and modernize the way it is administered.
—Expand it to all sectors of agriculture. Currently, agricultural work must be seasonal to qualify for H-2A workers, so workers on dairy farms or in other full-time jobs don’t qualify. If workers must return home every ten months, as current rules say, create pools of employees to fill full-time jobs.
—Make the program portable from farm to farm so approved employers can share workers and provide work on another farm when none is available on one farm.
—Fix wage rate issues. The Adverse Effect Wage Rate forces employers to pay much higher wages than currently prevail in similar jobs and much higher than the minimum wage.
—Change the 50 percent rule for U.S. referrals. Currently, employers of H-2A workers must hire any qualified U.S. worker who applies for a job in the first half of the contract period—even if an H-2A worker is already in place—and at the Adverse Effect Wage Rate.
—Simplify the border crossing process.
—Have mandatory mediation and arbitration of disputes. End abusive litigation.
—Standardize and assess fees according to what benefits the employer and what benefits the employee.
—Expand access to housing. Use housing vouchers when housing isn’t available on farm. Currently, H-2A employers must provide free housing and free transportation, both in the United States and to and from the country of origin.
Carr is frustrated by the ongoing notion that, if farmers would just pay decent wages, they could get all the workers they need. His experience is, local workers won’t do agricultural work—even when paid at the higher H-2A rate and when given other H-2A benefits. His detailed records show that in the eight months after November 1, 2010, when unemployment was high, Titan Farms’s efforts to hire local people (as required under H-2A) showed these results: Of 285 local people hired, 60 did not report for work, 190 quit within a week, 20 were terminated for cause, and 15 finished the contract.
One of the galvanizing factors behind creation of USA Farmers was what occurred when administrations changed in Washington, D.C. After eight years of work, a series of H-2A reforms was negotiated under President George Bush and Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. Some gains were made, Carr said, but not all changes were for the best.
Shortly after President Barack Obama and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis came into office, those reforms were canceled. “They got rid of the good changes from Chao, kept the bad changes, and returned to the bad from 1987,” he said. Per-worker fees went up from $286 to $517, and wage rates in South Carolina went up 28 percent to $9.12 an hour from $7.25.
Carr employs 485 H-2A workers each year and has a payroll of $8 million.
The rule book, once 98 pages long, grew to 400 pages.
Join the effort
USA Farmers has attracted as members 1,241 farm employers in 41 states. Members pay a fee of $10 per H-2A worker. The founding board members and leadership includes Carr as president, New York apple grower Rod Farrow as secretary, Washington State grower Jon C. Wyss, Bill Brimm from Georgia, Lewis DeEugenio, Jr., from New Jersey, Rod Kuegel from Kentucky, Steve Fortin from California, Randall Bracy from Louisiana, Stan Eury and Lee Wicker (treasurer) from North Carolina, Paul Hornbeck (vice president) from Kentucky, Renea Jones from Tennessee, Eloise A. Wilder from Virginia, and Bo Bentley from Florida.
The organization has a Washington, D.C., address. It has hired Leon R. Sequeira, with the law firm Seyfarth Shaw, to provide advice and counsel. Sequeira is a former assistant Secretary of Labor for Policy during the Bush administration and oversaw the 2008 revisions to the H-2A regulations.
After growing up on a Michigan dairy farm, Richard Lehnert began writing about farming in 1962, while still a junior studying journalism at Michigan State University. He worked at newspapers for a year before joining the staff of Michigan Farmer, where he spent 26 years, the last 15 as chief editor. He joined the staff of Good Fruit Grower in 2010.
Read his stories: Story Index