Honeycrisp apples grow in a New York orchard. ( Courtesy Crunch Time Apple Growers )

Eastern apple growers are increasingly using the H-2A program for guest workers, but that doesn’t mean it is easy.

The Department of Labor said that New York growers of all crops used the H-2A program for 6,870 certified positions in fiscal 2017, ranking eighth among all states and accounting for 3.4% of all H-2A positions for that year.

That was a 24% increase from 2016, when the Department of Labor reported New York used H-2A for 5,522 positions. In 2010, New York growers used only 3,858 H-2A workers, according to Department of Labor statistics.

In 2016, the Department of Labor reported that New York’s agricultural guest workers for the apple industry totaled about 2,900 certified positions, or more than half of New York’s H-2A workers.

The adverse wage rate paid to workers in New York was $11.74 per hour in 2016 and now is close to $13, growers said.

Working through paperwork to participate in the program is a struggle, said Cynthia Haskins, president and CEO of the Fishers-based New York Apple Association.

“People have had some concerns and challenges jumping through hoops to make sure their paperwork got processed,” she said.

“The situation seems to not improve because ... everybody throughout the country is wanting more workers, additional workers, and that magnifies the paper workload.”

Haskins said she thinks the process can be streamlined.

“For growers to sit here wondering if they’re going to have help or not until the ninth hour isn’t fair to anybody, isn’t fair to the growers or the workers,” Haskins said.

Growers never seem to have quite enough labor, said Brenda Briggs, vice president of sales and marketing for Rice Fruit Co., Gardners, Pa.

“I know a few of our growers have been transitioning over to H-2A have had some delays in getting their labor,” she said.

With increasing numbers of growers using the H-2A program, Briggs said she worries how long the program will be able to sustain increases from the industry.

“Labor is always the biggest concern. You know you have to harvest fruit at the optimum time in order to meet all the demands of the market and make sure growers get the kind of return they need to keep being in the business,” she said.

Briggs hopes that promised Trump administration tweaks to the program will make a difference and make it easier for growers.

Labor is the biggest challenge for growers, said John Teeple, owner of Teeple Farms, Wolcott, N.Y., and the H-2A program has rules that don’t make senses.

For example, Teeple said the H-2A program has a requirement that growers must advertise in newspapers for domestic apple pickers before being able to use the H-2A program.

In early August, growers in the region advertised in the local paper for about 500 apple pickers, he said.

“It is a perfect example that there just isn’t 500 people available and looking, waiting for us to give them a job,” he said.

New York needs about 8,000 H-2A workers and Washington state needs about 45,000, he said.

“Maybe someday, the powers that be will understand that agriculture needs labor and they will stop making it so difficult for us,” he said.

 
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