By Tim Linden
It is no secret that the United States is currently facing a tremendous labor shortage as employers all over the country are having trouble finding workers to fill vacant slots.
Welcome to production agriculture, which has been dealing with an acute labor shortage for many years. The problem has been increasing over the last few decades as the U.S. Congress has been unable, or unwilling, to pass meaningful immigration reform. And it has been exacerbated over the last 16 months with worker concerns about COVID-19 reducing the workforce and the reopening of the nation allowing workers to be very selective as “Help Wanted” signs are ubiquitous.
Agriculture does have one advantage as it can utilize the U.S. Department of Labor’s H-2A program to hire temporary foreign workers on a contract basis. Though the program has always been cumbersome with a myriad of challenging regulations, more and more ag employers are utilizing the concept to augment their workforce. Western Growers Legal Department began offering its agent services to members about 15 years ago and has become quite expert in traversing the rules of the game.
WG Senior Vice President & General Counsel Jason Resnick said the organization filed a couple of applications on behalf of members that first year covering a limited amount of workers. In 2020, the legal staff prepared dozens of applications covering thousands of workers. “For the first 10 years, we had a slow but steady increase in the number of members that were using us to file their H-2A applications,” Resnick said. “In the last five years, we have seen a much steeper increase. Each year, more and more companies are turning to the program.”
He said Western Growers has worked with some employers for more than a decade while others have just started this year with small pilot programs. Some applications ask for scores of H-2A employees while others request just a handful or two. Western Growers now has a staff dedicated to the effort and works on behalf of members as their official agent in this fee-for-service program. Resnick said the program’s learning curve is still steep though the core regulations have remained largely unchanged in the last decade allowing WG to become expert on its nuances and knowledgeable of its potential pitfalls. “There is a minefield of missteps that can be damaging to your application if you are not familiar with the program,” he said, noting that housing and transportation rules are typically the highest barriers to entry. He did say that the filing of applications is now done electronically, which has made it a bit easier, at least regarding the paperwork.
Resnick’s experiences over the last couple of years indicate that most ag employers have either reached their tipping point or will soon be there. “I have never seen such shortages of domestic labor that we are currently witnessing,” he said. “And it’s not getting any better.”
River Vista Farms in Colusa County in Northern California has been using Western Growers to secure H-2A workers for the past four seasons. The fifth-generation family farm is operated by Woody and Kathy Yerxa along with their son Mitchell, their daughter Melissa and her husband, Antonio Ortiz. They grow about 2,700 acres of mixed crops including prunes, almonds, walnuts and pecans as well as processing tomatoes, and various seed crops. “We are growers, not packers or processors. Our combined years of experience are used to raise crops of the highest quality. We feel very appreciative to have a stable and full-time workforce that is very productive,” said Kathy Yerxa.
The company has used several different strategies over the year to secure workers, including word of mouth, California’s Employment Development Department, college job fairs, and farm labor contractors. Their need for workers expands in the April to October time frame as their crops mature. Each of the past four years, they have applied for nine to 14 H-2A workers to fill their labor gap. Those workers represent about 30% of their workforce during that period.
“I do not think that we could have gotten these H-2A workers without the help of Western Growers,” said Woody. “Jason Resnick and Western Growers have been wonderful to work with. They are responsive to inquiries, are extremely helpful at all steps of the process, going above and beyond my expectation. I would recommend to anyone who is thinking about hiring H-2A workers that they contact Western Growers first.”
Kathy added: “Western Growers has helped us every step of the way, working with the Department of Labor on our behalf, making our interaction with them positive. The penalties for not adhering to the rules and regulations relating to worker housing can be quite onerous. Western Growers ensures that we stay in compliance with what is expected and helps us keep up with the everchanging laws and regulations.”
River Vista said the biggest drawback of the program is the guaranteed minimum wage for H-2A workers, which drives up all the wages paid on the ranch. Kathy added that the housing requirements is the first hurdle a potential user must jump. “If you do not operate a labor camp or have worker housing available it would be difficult, almost impossible, to participate in this program,” she said.
Overall, River Vista is happy with their results and the workers they receive every year. “The H-2A workers we have gotten come prepared to work,” Kathy said. “They are very enthusiastic and productive.”
Arvin, CA-based Tasteful Selections, which specializes in producing and packaging value-added packs of bite-sized potatoes, launched a pilot H-2A program with Western Growers this season as a potential additional solution to its labor issues. Director of Human Resources Fred Garcia noted that the potato processor dipped their toes into the process this year by requesting six workers on a five-month contract for their plant in Lamont, CA, and then eight workers for a 10-month contract at their Parker, AZ facility.
“The reason we are trying it is that we have a shortage of labor and are looking for solutions,” Garcia said. “We have used an FLC in the past (to fill holes) but we were not happy with the consistency of the workers we received.”
He said this pilot program only represents a handful of the hundreds of workers Tasteful Selections employ at their two plants but so far he has been pleased with the outcome. “The biggest hurdle was housing. That was the most challenging but once we solved that we have been happy with the results.”
And Garcia said working with Western Growers H-2A team was very helpful. He said they helped with the paperwork and gave the supervisors a one-hour training session to make sure they understood their responsibilities.
Garcia said he also followed Resnick’s advice to make the first day on the job memorable for these workers by buying them a few gifts to make their stay with the employer a good one. For example, they gave these new employees soccer balls and some games that would give them something to do in their off time. “We want to be an employer of choice,” he said.
He added that the adverse effect wage rate that the DOL establishes on a state-by-state basis is not an impediment to using the H-2A program. “We just look at it as the cost of doing business,” he said, indicating that the main goal is securing a competent labor force so that Tasteful Selections can service its customers.