Jennifer Uranga has been helping farmers sign up guestworkers under the federal H-2A visa program since before the recent surge in demand.
She kept books and oversaw safety for an onion and hop grower near Parma, Idaho, for several years. One day, her boss asked her to figure out how to bring guestworkers to the farm through H-2A. She did, and a couple of major fruit growers in the area subsequently asked her to do the same.
Ultimately she started Mountain West Ag Consulting, which acts as an H-2A agent and provides human-resources and food and worker safety compliance services. She has now been working with the H-2A program for nearly five years.
“This is my dream job. I love what I do and I cannot imagine doing anything else,” said Uranga, who splits time between in the Wilder, Idaho, and Yakima, Wash., areas.
The Immigration and Nationality Act authorizes the H-2A visa program, which allows a U.S. employer to hire foreign workers temporarily — normally for 10 months or less — for agricultural work when sufficient numbers of U.S. workers are not available.
Demand for H-2A workers is rising.
An Idaho Department of Labor report on agriculture’s contribution to the state’s economy said the recently shrinking supply of workers prompted agriculture employers to offer benefits, incentives and higher wages, or use the H-2A program.
The total number of certified H-2A positions in Idaho has nearly doubled from 2013 to 2017 — from 1,539 to 2,994 — and these temporary workers are “on pace to becoming a dominant share of the migrant worker demographic,” the report said.
Strong demand keeps Uranga busy, as does the significant paperwork the application process entails.
Before the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can approve a visa petition for H‐2A workers, the employer must receive a temporary labor certification from the U.S. Department of Labor.
A Department of Labor handbook says the prospective employer starts by filing a job order with his or her state’s workforce agency 60 to 75 days before the work start date. The Office of Foreign Labor Certification, within the federal Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration, then requires the employer to file an H-2A application with its national processing center in Chicago at least 45 days before the work start date and submit any additional required documentation by at least 30 days before the work start date. The employer recruits workers, subject to advertising and reporting requirements, after receiving an acceptance notice from the processing center.
“I do not recruit workers,” Uranga said. “Rather, in the West, usually the employers contact a recruiter in Mexico or border U.S. states.”
She instead focuses on the H-2A application process after exploring the employer’s operations thoroughly.
“I visit them, and we talk about their farm and their labor needs,” Uranga said. “We ask a lot of questions about their existing work force, and we vet them — their payroll records, HR systems, et cetera.”
She said her clients, who pay a consulting fee, are “all over,” including Oregon, central Washington and southwest Idaho.
“This year, I picked up some smaller farms needing a couple of workers, but I deal with 20 to 200 workers often,” Uranga said.
Workers are contracted for a specified period, such as February through November or August through October. Uranga said it’s possible for a grower to write an additional contract and ask for more workers for a known and documented date of need up to a documented end date.
Recently, she and some larger clients have aimed to transfer workers from one contract to another, “which can keep workers here in the U.S. and help another grower,” she said.
Uranga also has been involved in efforts to address a recent housing shortage for H-2A workers.
“My phone rings every day with people inquiring about H-2A,” she said. More farmers are inquiring about the program, and “a lot are surprised by all of the rules and regulations that go with it.”
Uranga studied ag economics at the University of Idaho and worked for several food companies before staying home for a while, then returning to work in agriculture.
“I love agriculture. I love being able to spend my time on farms with farmers,” she said. “They are my friends and I get to help them.”