The devil is in the details

03/01/2008 02:00:00 AM

Do your homework before applying for H-2A temporary workers

By Renee Stern
Contributing Editor

Growers considering temporary foreign workers under the H-2A visa program should start preparing early and seek expert advice, say those familiar with the process.

Tighter supplies of seasonal labor have pushed more growers into the H-2A guest worker program to guarantee enough workers for harvest, pruning and other tasks.

"We feel like we have no alternative," says Bruce Talbott, orchard manager at Talbott Farms Inc. in Palisade, Colo.

In 2006, Talbott Farms' advertising for seasonal workers brought in three responses--none of whom showed up for their first day at the company's vineyards and apple, peach and pear orchards. Last year, the call for local workers drew a complete blank.

"Every major fruit grower in the area is in (the H-2A program) now," Talbott says.

Starting out can seem daunting. "It's simple in description, but devilish in details," says Brent Milne, assistant orchard manager at McDougall & Sons Inc. in Wenatchee, Wash. Milne took part in an "H-2A Survival Guide" seminar at the recent Washington State Horticultural Association's annual meeting.

Growers must provide worker housing and transportation. That's simpler in some areas than others and may require renting vans, hiring drivers and building dormitories.

McDougall & Sons plans to build two 12-bed bunkhouses this year and has a 90-bed complex on the drawing board. Project manager Mike Brown outlined housing options at the horticultural seminar, including off-site rentals and joint projects with nearby growers.

The Frederick County Fruit Growers Association Inc. in Winchester, Va., manages a housing area for member growers who bring in about 400 workers each year, mainly from Jamaica and other Caribbean nations.

Their reliance on foreign workers goes back decades as local labor supplies have dwindled. "Without it, I don't know what we would have done," says Diane Kearns, treasurer of Fruit Hill Orchard in Winchester. "We'd have to hang it up."

Growers must provide food or cooking facilities for their H-2A workers, but fire codes prohibit cooking in individual rooms at the labor camp. Instead, she says, the association hires cooks and offers communal meals.

Strength in numbers
Banding together also lessened risk in previous years when growers faced lawsuits over bringing in H-2A workers, Kearns says.

She and Talbott recommend growers consult with others who've gone through the process. And an experienced agent to represent you in the target country is vital.

"Don't try to run it alone," Talbott says. "To do everything right and in sequence is difficult."

He works with an Arkansas-based company whose representatives in Mexico put together qualified crews, see them through consulate interviews and transport them to his farm. He suggests applying for a few more visas than needed to allow for attrition.

Kearns also works with representatives in Mexico and Jamaica.

"For Mexican workers there's a lot more legwork involved," she says.

Plan ahead, and start early
Start early to avoid coming up short when you need extra workers, both growers advise. Last year visa delays pushed back Talbott's first arrivals, scheduled for pruning work, more than a month--worrisome, but not critical.

"If we'd been bringing them in for harvest it would have been a big problem," he says. "We would've been halfway through the peach harvest if they'd been a month behind."

He uses a two-stage approach: bring in half his H-2A workers by Feb. 1 to prune, thin and harvest, then wait until harvest needs come into better focus to determine the number of the second batch arriving in mid-July.

That division provides more flexibility in case of weather losses or other unexpected reductions in harvestable fruit, Talbott says.

"You want to give yourself enough leeway to have them arrive in a timely fashion," Kearns says. "But you can't bring them in too early."

H-2A contracts guarantee work for at least three-fourths of the specified time.

"You wind up paying for sitting around time," she says.

Don’t cut corners
Bob Brammer, president of Crane & Crane Inc. in Brewster, Wash., boiled down two years of H-2A experience into three precepts at the horticultural meeting: Don't cut corners, communicate often and early, and document everything.

Cutting corners can backfire if problems occur. "Having made a good-faith effort at compliance puts you in a good place to start solving it," Brammer says.

Documenting everything, including what's covered in orientations, training, safety meetings and counseling sessions, provides backup should problems occur, he says.

But communicating expectations—both before workers sign contracts and at orientations after arrival—helps head off potential problems, he says. Continue that process through the contract and at an exit interview to get feedback and improve efforts on both sides.

Communicating with domestic crews is also important to smooth integrating the two groups, he says.

The cost of doing business
Housing, transportation, the adverse effect wage rate and additional management make H-2A workers more expensive.

But, Kearns says, "How much are you willing to risk that you're going to get enough workers? H-2A mitigates risk."

"It gives me security that I'm not going to lose my crew partway through the season to better or higher-paid work," Talbott says.

H-2A visas are tied to individual employers. Guaranteed work without fear of immigration enforcement makes H-2A contracts "relatively coveted jobs," he says. With a larger pool to draw from, growers can target workers they want to return next season.

"That may be worth it in and of itself: building up a good, experienced crew," he says.

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