Desperate for workers, growers face vast amounts of paperwork to get crops picked
By MITCH LIES
ALBANY, Ore. -- Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Labor was slow in processing the guestworker paperwork for Albany farmer and packer Bill Case.
Case, who was ready to start corn packing, called 19 of his best domestic applicants. Fourteen showed up for work the next day.
By the end of the day, all 14 were gone, Case said.
"Luckily our (guestworker) crew got here the next day and went right to work," he said.
For Case, the federal H-2A temporary agricultural worker program and the two dozen or so workers he obtains through it each summer are a lifesaver.
"The guys are great to have around," he said. "We pick them up every day. They come to work. They work hard, and they go home."
The paperwork and other H-2A program qualifications, however, are confusing, expensive, redundant and time consuming, he said.
"The program has become so complicated, so difficult to use that only people who feel they have to use it are doing so," said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.
Reams of paperwork, thousands of dollars spent advertising job openings that domestic workers won't do and countless hours interviewing applicants add up to an H-2A program that "is just a nightmare," Case said.
To qualify for H-2A, farmers must advertise job openings locally and in at least two neighboring states. Farmers must show they interviewed or tried to interview all applicants, regardless of an applicant's ability or willingness to do the job. Even if applicants aren't qualified or miss interview appointments, farmers have to detail on a form why the applicant wasn't hired.
"The biggest misconception about the guestworker program is it is set up to bring foreign workers to the state," said Eric Villegas, foreign labor coordinator for the Oregon Employment Department.
"That's not really the purpose. The goal is to try and find U.S. workers who can and will do U.S. jobs. Only if we can't find U.S. workers will the federal government allow employers to bring foreign workers to do these jobs," Villegas said.
"U.S. workers get top priority, and they should," Villegas said.
Case said he and his wife, Gail, spend about 15 hours a week for three months each year interviewing and trying to track down applicants. Many applicants don't have phones and use grocery stores or other local businesses as contacts. Often, Case said, the store owners don't know the applicant.
"Finally," Gail Case said, "we started sending letters saying, 'Call me at this time at this number if you want an interview.'
"Half of them never call," she said.
Of 453 who applied for a job to pack fresh corn at Bill Case Farms last year for $10.60 an hour, 179 didn't show up for scheduled interviews, Case said. And 217 had poor or no references. Of the 57 the farm hired, only 11 showed up for work. All 11 quit within the first two days.
"It surprises people in town who think all these guestworkers are taking their jobs," Case said. "But the fact is, no one will do agricultural work."
In 2009, 55,921 workers participated in the federal H-2A program, according to U.S. Department of State records, with 52,317 from Mexico. Oregon had 68 participate in the program, according to Homeland Security records.
Participation in the program has declined since 2008, when 64,404 H-2A visas were issued.
"The Department of Labor has continued to make this program more difficult and painful to use," Gasperini said in explaining the drop in usage.
Case decided to use H-2A four years ago after struggling to find workers to fill the needs of his expanded operation.
He sank $350,000 into building a labor camp in Jefferson, Ore., to house the workers. And he bought a bus to transport workers from the Mexican border to Oregon, and to and from his labor camp to his packing facility in Albany.
He employs the guestworkers for 10 weeks.
Under H-2A, Case is required to transport workers to and from the Mexican border, house them, feed them, pay them a minimum of $10.60 an hour, transport them to and from work each day, and take them to a bank and a supermarket once a week.
Case said he spends upward of $5,000 each summer on transportation, food and housing for the workers.
"It's not a cheap program," he said, "and that is only for 20 or so people."
When the season is complete, the workers are eager to return to Mexico, Case said.
"These people don't want to stay here," Case said. "They want to come, work and go home."
Because H-2A visas are good for just one year, Case must repeat the process annually.
Case believes more farmers would use H-2A if it was simplified. But far from getting easier, Case, like Gasperini, said the program is getting more confusing and more difficult each year.
"The hassle is the problem," he said.
"It's the advertising in four papers in four states. That costs probably $2,500 or $3,000, and we've never got a worker out of there yet," Case said. "And it's all the paperwork."
For each worker he hires, Case estimates he completes between 20 and 25 pages of forms.
"You shouldn't have to go through 20 pages of forms," he said. "Two or three pages should be sufficient."
Villegas, who helps steer Case and other Oregon employers through the paperwork, said he often hears similar complaints.
"It can get expensive for employers, but no one has complained about that to me," Villegas said. "It's the whole paperwork process that is the biggest concern."
"None of it is accommodating," Case said. "I don't know what you would do if you were bringing in 300 or 400 workers."
Still, Case said, he worries that without the program, he wouldn't be able to meet his labor needs.
"I've talked to guys who said they are really hurting this year," Case said. "They can't find workers."