by Bill and Mary Weaver
If you are having difficulty finding enough help for summer and fall farm work for this year, the H2A program is definitely an avenue to consider. Despite the paperwork, which an agent can assist you with, most farmers tend to be happy with the quality of the workers they receive through H2A. These workers are hoping to return next year so they are generally productive and looking to please their employer.
“The Florida Citrus Commission has been using H2A workers for several decades now,” stated Kerry Scott of MAS Labor, speaking to growers at the Mid-Atlantic Growers Convention. “They have found that with H2A workers, their growers are getting the same amount of work done using 25 percent fewer people. The H2A workers are in the U.S. to work hard and to work long hours to help their families in Mexico and elsewhere get ahead.” MAS Labor is the largest supplier of H2A workers in the world.
Once you determine your start date and end date, the next step is to figure out how many workers you will need. You should allow about 90 days for processing your application before your start date.
Suppose you have a smaller farm, and you are not sure you’ll have consistent work every day through the season for the number of workers you’ll need at peak season. If a neighboring farmer you know could also use a couple of guys occasionally, you could file an application jointly to share a certain number of workers so they’ll have the hours they need when it’s time to go home at the end of the season.
“A joint filing can be between two employers or many employers,” noted Scott. “By filing jointly, you save a lot of money up front, and you gain the ability to move workers seamlessly from farm to farm as needed through the season.
State borders are not an issue, but distance is. The government expects H2A workers to be within an hour’s commute of their place of work. If the next farm for your workers is nearby, you can both file jointly for the transfer of your workers. If your farms are widely separated, each of you will need to file separately for the worker transfers.
One thing to keep in mind when filing jointly is the legal term, “joint and several liability.” What this means in practical terms is that if one of the farmers you filed jointly with does something that is a violation, the government can reach into both your pockets for damages. Only file jointly with farmers you know are reputable.
There are some very large H2A associations in some areas and states. They can make a mass filing for all their growers and do the paperwork. This will cut your costs. The North Carolina Growers Association is the largest in the country. Virginia State has a big H2A association, and so does the Agricultural Growers Association, both file collectively with H2A for all their members.
“The farmers in North Carolina may need 1,000 workers for tobacco. On the application, these associations will list all the farms that will be using these workers. They will also be able to tag on other farm jobs these workers can do after tobacco is finished. In North Carolina, this will generally be Christmas tree work.” This gives the workers a longer season, and the longer season will attract better workers because it will provide a higher income.
At the end of Christmas tree season, those workers will go back to Mexico for the required two months (H2A workers may only stay in the U.S. for 10 months a year).
“This system generally works very well, but not perfectly,” continued Scott, whose job as an agent is to assist farmers who are having difficulty. “I’ll get calls, for example, from a farmer saying, ‘I needed Christmas tree workers by Nov. 1, and they’re late because tobacco work ran late this year.’ Or perhaps a client will say, ‘I need to have workers earlier than the Association brings them in because I need help picking strawberries.’ Or maybe a grower would like to request specific workers for the next year. With the Associations, you can’t request specific workers.”
In cases like these, Scott continued, the employer can file individually, perhaps through an agency like that specializes in H2A. They charge a fee, but it can be well worth it to get the same guys back that you know and have already trained. If you file individually through an agent, you can not only get the same workers back, you can also count on having them arrive on your preferred START date, not when they are released from a previous farm job.
Suppose during the season, another farmer asks if he can borrow your workers for a day or two. The answer is yes only if that farm is listed on your H2A contract. Otherwise, this would be a violation, and the hours they work on that farm would not count toward the total hours you have agreed to supply for the season. The ¾ rule means if you do not supply at least ¾ of the hours you applied for, you are responsible for figuring out some more work they can do for you, or else for paying them for the remainder of the contracted hours.
Keep in mind that you can’t contract for more H2A workers than you have beds. The government has strict regulations about the amount of space that must be allowed per bed. If you don’t provide a kitchen for your workers to cook meals at their quarters, you’ll need to make provision for supplying their meals.
You can use barracks-type housing — a farm building with a kitchen at the one end and a bathroom at the other; a block of apartments; or a fixed site trailer. Travel trailers aren’t allowed by H2A unless you are a custom harvester. The housing must be at least 100 feet from animals.
If your worker housing is more than walking distance from shopping, you’ll need to provide transportation on pay days to shopping and to a place where workers can send money home to their families.
Hiring your farm workers through H2A
by Bill and Mary Weaver