FRUITLAND, Idaho — The number of agricultural employers in Idaho applying for the H-2A guest worker program has increased 32 percent over the past two years.
The federal program allows agricultural employers who anticipate a worker shortage to bring in foreign guestworkers to fill jobs on a temporary or seasonal basis.
According to Idaho Department of Labor data, the department received 578 H-2A applications in fiscal year 2017, an increase of 13.6 percent over fiscal 2016 and 32 percent over 2015.
“It is increasing and it is going to continue to increase,” said Dunnia Aplicano, who oversees the IDL H-2A program. She said the department expects to receive nearly 700 applications from ag employers in the coming year.
The number of H-2A workers requested by Idaho ag employers rose from 2,665 in 2015 to 3,467 in 2017, a 30 percent increase.
Idaho’s 13.6 percent H-2A application increase from 2016 to 2017 closely tracks the national numbers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, it received 10,115 H-2A applications in fiscal 2017, a 14.9 percent increase over 2016.
According to IDL, the largest number of ag employers that use H-2A labor are in southeast and eastern Idaho, and there has been a recent increase in the last couple of years in southwestern Idaho.
Henggeler Packing co. in Fruitland, one of Idaho’s largest fruit packers, turned to the H-2A program two years ago when the ag labor situation got critically tight.
The southwestern Idaho company brought in 44 H-2A workers this year.
Henggeler President and Sales Manager Kelly Henggeler said the number of people applying for jobs with the company had dwindled in recent years, and two years ago, the company didn’t have enough people to pick apples.
“Obviously, that is very costly,” he said. “The H-2A program is really the only program available to make sure you have the labor that is needed. We have had to turn to the program in order to continue to do business.”
Henggeler Field Manager Chad Henggeler said the labor situation was so critical that it came down to, “Either we go H-2A or after 110 years, we were going to have to get out of the business. We have no other options.”
He said the program involves a lot of paperwork and is time-consuming and expensive but it does work, especially considering the alternative.
“It’s cumbersome and it’s expensive but it is doable,” he said. “Once you navigate the bureaucracy part and get the workers up here, they are good workers and they work hard.”
Michael Williamson, manager of Williamson Orchards and Vineyards in Caldwell in southwestern Idaho, said he was close to turning to the H-2A program this year but opted not to because of a harsh January cold that significantly reduced his fruit crop.
“I was really close do doing it this year but I knew my harvest wasn’t gong to be as good,” he said. “We are going to look into it again for next year.”