The federal government shutdown will contribute to November labor shortages in the vegetable fields of the U.S. Southwest and the citrus groves in Florida, industry leaders believe.
U.S. growers that started paperwork in late September and early October to receive guest agricultural workers from Mexico and other countries in November and December will see delays because of the government shutdown that started Oct. 1 and was still in effect in mid-October.
Agricultural farm labor experts said a key processing center for the H-2A program in Chicago has been dark during the shutdown, leaving applications for guest workers set to arrive at U.S. farms in November and later at risk of late arrivals.
“The problem is right now that the Chicago processing center is closed, (and) those Department of Labor folks were not considered essential employees,” said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the Vienna, Va.-based National Council of Agricultural Employers.
“Part of the fee paying for H-2A is the approval of the job order in Chicago,” he said.
Growers who use H-2A in California’s Imperial Valley and Yuma, Ariz., could be in big trouble when harvest starts in November and December, said Gasperini. Because Arizona has mandatory E-Verify to check the legal status of employees, Gasperini said close to 80% of the lettuce and greens harvested in the Yuma regions are picked by about 3,000 H-2A guest workers.
“The result is all of these crops are in peril if we don’t end the shutdown or get the workers unfurloughed or to take other actions to get these applications moving,” said Jason Resnick, general counsel for Western Growers, Irvine, Calif.
Resnick said the planned start date for many of the Yuma-area H-2A workers was the first part of November. H-2A guest workers account for 30% to 40% of labor needs in California and Arizona winter vegetable growing regions, Resnick estimated.
Western Growers is working with U.S. Apple, NCAE, and the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association to contact congressional leaders about the bottleneck and what could be done to expedite the applications when the shutdown ends, he said.
“There will be crops rotting in the fields if those workers are not brought in when we need them,” Resnick said.
Florida citrus and vegetable growers also will be affected, industry leaders said.
“We’re creeping up on a real disaster here,” said Michael Carlton, director of labor relations for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland.
Most of the H-2A workers are in the citrus groves, and most of the start dates for H-2A workers, were targeting first of November arrivals, he said. Last season, growers of all crops in Florida requested about 12,000 workers for the H-2A program.
Carlton said a concern is the steps in the application process that must be done after Chicago processes the H-2A applications. Those steps will also face a backlog, he said.
Likely delays in the arrival of H-2A workers unfortunately coincide with early drop pressure in citrus harvest, Carlton said.
“We could see a real impact (on the crop),” he said.
Growers associations including U.S. Apple, Western Growers, Florida Citrus Mutual, NCAE and FFVA have been asking members of Congress for help, but through Oct. 14 the administration has indicated the Chicago processing office would remain closed.
“The big plea to Congress and to the State Department, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service and to the Department of Labor is that when the government starts back up, we are desperate for (them) to have extra resources in place to clear up this backlog,” Gasperini said.