The number of H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers reached a record 242,762 this year, up more than 18 percent for the fifth year in a row, as farmers continue to look outside the U.S. for help with tending and harvesting their crops.
While foreign guestworkers represent only 12 to 16 percent of the estimated 1.5 million to 2 million farmworkers in the nation, the growth in their use is indicative of continued shortages of domestic farmworkers.
“Farm labor is tight everywhere because of the booming economy. It should be seen as good news because American workers have choices and can go into things where the pay is greater or work is easier,” said Kerry Scott, program manager of masLabor in Lovingston, Va., the largest provider of temporary H-2A agricultural and H-2B nonagricultural workers in the nation. This year, masLabor provided more than 20,000 guestworkers to 1,200 farms and businesses in 47 states.
Scott sees continued 20 percent annual growth in the number of H-2A workers nationally for the foreseeable future.
Aside from H-2A guestworkers, the number of seasonal farmworkers is difficult to measure because so many are undocumented or improperly documented, said Veronica Nigh, an economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, D.C. H-2A demand keeps increasing, she said. Five years ago it was 6 to 8 percent of the overall farm workforce; now it’s double that.
“Every year we hear similar stories of difficulty in obtaining labor. Some years it’s more difficult in some regions than others, based on crop size and conditions, but it doesn’t seem to be going away,” Nigh said.
Farmers in Michigan and other states have shifted from labor-intensive crops to those that can be tended and harvested by machine because they can’t find enough labor, she said.
“It’s likely that the authorized domestic seasonal farm labor supply was diminished as a result of a robust U.S. economy and low unemployment,” said Michael Marsh, president and CEO of the National Council for Agricultural Employers, in Washington, D.C. “Unauthorized domestic seasonal farm labor supply was likely diminished somewhat as well as the current administration continued the trend initiated during the Obama administration of increased border enforcement and deportations.”
Nationally in 2018, Georgia farmers used the most H-2A workers for the first time with 32,364, surpassing Florida, which had been No. 1 the previous three years, according to a U.S. Department of Labor report.
Washington state was third with 24,862 H-2A workers, up 34 percent from 2017, which in turn was up 35 percent from 2016. California was fifth overall at 18,908 guestworkers, up 24 percent.
Berries, general farmworkers, tobacco, apples, melons, fruits and vegetables, lettuce, corn, cherries and nursery and greenhouse workers are the top 10 crops or occupations, in order, using H-2A in 2018.
The labor shortage was less severe in Washington this year because of a smaller apple crop, more workers migrating up from California due to the light cherry crop there, more H-2A guestworkers and generally higher pay driven by the Adverse Effect Wage Rate — the minimum pay for H-2A workers set by Department of Labor. It’s $14.12 per hour in Washington and Oregon and $13.18 in California.
While some Washington growers were short domestic workers, others said they had supplies that ranged from adequate to plenty.
The Wenatchee Valley, from Wenatchee to Leavenworth, is prime pear country. Because pears are heavier, pickers prefer apples. A few years ago, a picker shortage resulted in some pears left on trees. The valley is home to many family pear operations that are too small to afford H-2A workers, particularly because of the requirement that farms provide them with housing.
The domestic labor supply was a little better last year and even better this year, growers said.
“It was really good,” said Pablo Avila, orchard manager at Independent Warehouse, in the small town of Dryden.
Picking started Aug. 15 and finished Oct. 2. Avila had 100 workers at peak harvest for 200 acres and for the first time hired H-2A guestworkers, 14 of them. He was able to reduce his piece rate from $27 per bin plus a $2 bonus to stay the entire season last year to $25 with no bonus this year.
“We had good quality and more fruit so pickers were more eager to work and I could pay less,” he said. “It seemed like there were more domestics looking for work but not a lot. No oversupply.”
Overall, the valley still had a bit of a labor shortage, he said.
Greg Rains, horticulturalist and fieldman for Blue Star Growers, a Cashmere packer, said labor was “significantly better than the last three years” and that it was nice to have some breathing room. Piece rates stabilized, he said, adding that none of his growers reduced their rates.
About 120 miles to the south in the Lower Yakima Valley, Robert Valicoff, president of Valicoff Fruit Co., Wapato, was one of the first growers in the state to hire H-2A workers in 2006.
“I anticipated a shortage of labor would take place and I figured foreign workers would be here to produce the food or the U.S. would be importing food,” Valicoff said.
He employs 220 year-round workers in 1,700 acres of orchards and his packing house. This year, he hired about 220 H-2A guestworkers on the orchard side, about 95 percent of his seasonal crew. He also invested $5 million with partners in buying and renovating a 200-bed hotel in Yakima for H-2A housing.
“Had we not had H-2A, we’d be in a world of hurt. The neighbors can thank us because it’s afforded them to pick up more domestics,” Valicoff said.
He figures his labor costs went up 25 to 30 percent when he fully invested in H-2A workers because of the cost of housing, utilities, transportation, documentation and wages.
There were periods of picker shortages this year during peak Gala apple harvest in August but there also were times some growers had enough labor that they gave workers weekends or Sundays off — seldom seen during harvest, he said.
Valicoff foresees a future for robotic pickers, which are still under development, but says that some manual labor will always be needed.
He also said the H-2A program needs to be more flexible to allow employers to hire and return foreign workers more quickly, The biggest improvement would be to end joint liability when small growers pool together to hire H-2A workers, he said.
“If something goes wrong on one guy’s farm, the others who hired the workers with him shouldn’t be liable for it,” he said.
The largest provider of H-2A guestworkers in the Northwest is Olympia-based WAFLA, formerly known as the Washington Farm Labor Association. This year WAFLA provided 15,771 H-2A workers with 13,848 going to Washington, 1,522 to Oregon and 401 to Idaho, Nevada, Utah and California.
Of that total, WAFLA brought in 10,608 as a provider to farms and hired 5,163 as a joint employer with farms.
Several large tree fruit companies in Washington hire their own H-2A workers independently of WAFLA. One of them, Zirkle Fruit Co., of Selah, hired 4,169 H-2A workers this year, up 40 percent from 2017 and making it the fourth largest H-2A employer in the nation. Mark Zirkle, company president, declined a request for an interview.
Dan Fazio, director of WAFLA, said Washington tree fruit growers had adequate labor this year due to the smaller apple crop, more migrants from California, more H-2A workers and better pay.
“We didn’t get the calls of desperation from employers this year or big increases in piece rates to steal workers from each other,” he said.
“It was primarily because of the 34 percent increase in the legal work program (H-2A),” he said, predicting the growth in H-2A hires will continue. “I would expect the state to hit close to 30,000 H-2A workers in 2019.”
However, the seafood industry in Western Washington was hurting because of crackdowns by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he said.
Fazio fears the Trump administration next year will reinstate Social Security mismatch letters to employers for employees with Social Security numbers that don’t match Social Security Administration records. The employer is responsible for resolving a mismatch, but can’t if an employee is an illegal immigrant.
Fazio also fears the Washington state Employment Security Department’s proposal to charge growers $1,000, plus $100 per worker for the first 1,000 H-2A workers. The money would go to monitoring the H-2A program.
“It would devastate the program. It’s like the state doesn’t understand the basics of a legal worker program. It’s use that or watch crops rot. If we didn’t have those 24,000 workers, we could not bring in the apple harvest,” Fazio said.
Fazio believes this year’s improved domestic labor supply may be an aberration and that H-2A will continue to grow “depending on whether the state decides to end the program.”
Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, said the continued growth of the H-2A program is indicative of a short supply of domestic workers. The strong economy and the lowest unemployment rates in Washington since 1976 contribute to the shortage, he said.
Oregon and Idaho
Department of Labor numbers for H-2A workers in Oregon and Idaho for 2017 and 2018 are not yet available, but in 2016 Idaho had 2,994 and Oregon had 759. WAFLA provided 1,522 H-2A workers in Oregon in 2018, up from 623 in 2017.
“Oregon has a severe problem. They drastically need the program, but they don’t have housing and the state government is hostile to the program,” Fazio said.
In Caldwell, Idaho, tree fruit and wine grape grower Mike Williamson said this year was tight again for labor. For the second year in a row, he had enough workers to get crops harvested only because yields were down. He has 15 to 20 year-round workers and is considering H-2A.
“We’re definitely affected by our neighbors all paying above minimum wage,” he said.
The minimum wage for H-2A workers in Idaho is $11.63 per hour.
Historically, California was never a big user of H-2A because it has about 500,000 domestic farmworkers. Growers also don’t like the added cost of housing and say the program isn’t flexible enough to meet their needs for harvesting highly perishable crops in a timely fashion.
Jason Resnick, vice president of Western Growers Association, in Irvine, Calif., said the ag labor supply generally continues to tighten as workers retire and few younger ones take their places. Western Growers, whose members grow about half the produce in America, has helped growers obtain H-2A workers for 10 years and is handling more requests than ever, Resnick said.
Labor shortages have increased the average wage to $12 per hour and piece rates can equal $25 to $30 per hour, he said.
“We would do a lot more H-2A if it were not for the onerous housing requirements and costs of land, particularly on the coast where shortages are acute. It’s difficult to make the program pencil out,” Resnick said.
Ryan Jacobsen, president of Fresno County Farm Bureau, said 2018 labor was tight but better than 2017. Significant minimum wage increases and a rollback of overtime provisions are affecting piece rates, he said. Bryan Little, director of employment policy for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said California public policy discourages piece rates.
A CFBF survey last year showed growers 20 to 40 percent short of workers needed and making market decisions accordingly, Little said. Sometimes they found it cheaper to disc a crop under than to harvest it, he said.
Little said he didn’t hear as much concern about labor this year as he has in the past.
“People are not happy. No one feels like they have enough, but they are muddling along, doing the best they can,” Little said. “I don’t have calls from anyone saying, ‘I don’t have people to pick my crops. What do I do?’”