Three years ago, Fishkill Farms owner and operator Joshua Morgenthau found himself facing a situation that is every farmer’s nightmare.
It was time to prepare his 100-acre fruit and vegetable farm’s cherries and strawberries for harvest, but the workers he’d hired for the job weren’t there to help. His employees were many miles away in Jamaica, waiting for the green light to enter the U.S. and get to work.
Without enough hands to weed and prune the delicate crop, Morgenthau’s berries were at risk of rotting on the vine. Worse, he knew there was little he could do but wait and hope he didn’t lose his whole crop in the meantime.
Each year, Morgenthau employs eight seasonal migrant workers who travel to his farm in New York’s Hudson Valley through the labor department’s H-2A temporary agricultural worker program. The process of obtaining their H-2A visas had been relatively painless for the previous five years. But this time, he says the department changed the file number of his application without any warning.
That meant he had to refile all the applications, creating “hours and hours and hours of more paperwork and hassle for us” and delaying the workers’ arrival by more than a month.
As a result, the farm’s cherry and strawberry production took a hit that season. His team of migrant and domestic workers were unable to make up for the decreased harvest preparation time.
“We managed to get it picked, but it was still kind of a mess,” he told The Huffington Post.
Despite setbacks like this one, the visa program is essential to Morgenthau’s farm. He works with the same employees each year and described them as “part of the farm family.” He credits them with being experts at operating the machinery specific to the crops he grows.
The H-2A program was created in the 1980s to help agricultural employers bring temporary foreign workers into the U.S. to do seasonal work that domestic workers cannot or are not willing to do. As part of the program, employers are required to offer certain wages, plus transportation and housing when necessary. The H-2A visa holders live and work in the U.S. for several months at a time but are not considered immigrants, and the program is not seen as a pathway to citizenship.
This so-called guest farm worker program is far from perfect. It has been criticized for being easy to abuse, with some employers neglecting worker safety and stealing wages while facing little recourse. However, those familiar with the visa program describe it as the industry’s sole legal option for getting temporary farm work done.
The farming industry still relies heavily on undocumented workers, who are estimated to make up about half of the country’s 2.5 million hired farm hands, according to the Labor Department. The temporary visa program is responsible for just a fraction of the overall agricultural workforce.
Yet the program is growing increasingly popular ― due to the domestic labor shortages ― forcing more farmers to contend with a chaotic and heavily bureaucratic system that puts their crops in jeopardy. At the same time, calls to improve the program are being sounded by farmers and immigration reform advocates alike.
The U.S. has cracked down on the use of undocumented laborers coming into the country, resulting in a widespread labor shortage in agriculture and ballooning demand for H-2A visas. This has also meant more administrative delays in processing visa applications.
Delays of even a week can result in major crop losses for farmers. Delays of a month or more can be devastating.
Morgenthau was able to save his harvest in 2013, the year his workers were delayed, but he knows just how easily things can fall apart. “We’re lucky to have never lost an entire crop,” he said.
Others aren’t so fortunate.
A number of farmers in Georgia reported six-digit losses this year due to delays in visa processing. Another farmer, in California, watched as one-third of his Napa cabbage rotted in the field while he waited for the H-2A workers to arrive.
Last year, a State Department computer glitch delayed workers on the West Coast, causing millions of dollars of lost revenue. Elise Bauman, executive director at Salem Harvest, a food recovery group that partners with dozens of farms in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, saw the fallout of this glitch firsthand. She and her team worked with just three strawberry farms in 2015, but she estimated seeing some 100 acres of the wasted berries with her own eyes.
“They have to be handled and harvested at exactly the right time, otherwise you get a pile of mush,” Bauman said. “Very delicious-tasting mush, but it’s not attractive.”
These issues will only compound as the visa program continues to grow. Visa applications increased by 40 percent over the past five years, according to NPR. Last year, 140,000 H-2A visas were granted. In the first half of this year, visa issuance is up another 17 percent over 2015.
The H-2A program’s issues have sent the farming industry into crisis mode, vocally criticizing the program’s backlog of visa applications and emerging as a somewhat surprising proponent of immigration reform.
In an April news release, the American Farm Bureau Federation warned of rotting fields of crops resulting from H-2A delays. Those delays, the organization says, could be avoided if the program were revamped.
So far, there hasn’t been much action on that advice.
In June, a bipartisan group of Congress members calling for H-2A reform sent a letter to the Labor Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services leaders, asking them to streamline the guest worker visa process. Their effort has yet to gain traction.
Other voices are calling for bigger changes.
Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, which represents farmers in California, Arizona and Colorado, would like to find a way to keep some of these temporary farm workers in the U.S., instead of sending them back to their home countries when their visas expire.
“We want to take care of the workers who are with us,” Nassif said. “They have experience, families and roots here. We want to keep those people [here] and protect them. We want some sort of legal status for them.”
In 2013, Nassif backed legislation sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that proposed a new “blue card” program that would make temporary workers in good legal standing eligible for a legal status, allowing them to stay in the country and granting them a path to citizenship. The bill passed in the Senate but did not come up for a vote in the House after being blocked by Speaker John Boehner.
In the absence of action in Washington, some believe employers in the industry should be doing more to offer better wages and conditions to their farmworkers, Bruce Goldstein, president of the Farmworker Justice advocacy group, argues.
“If employers want to retain their workforce and attract workers to their jobs, they collectively need to improve their reputation,” Goldstein told HuffPost.
Due to many farmworkers’ undocumented status, Goldstein argues, they silently endure subpar working conditions and pay, fearing that they’ll be reported or fired if they complain.
The average seasonal migrant farmworker is paid between $12,500 and $14,999 a year. Most lack health insurance and many work far more than 40 hours a week. (By contrast, someone working full time for the federal minimum wage earns $15,080 a year.)
Guest farm workers are supposed to earn more under the temporary work program. H-2A wages are set by the Labor Department and vary from state to state ― between $10.59 and $13.80 an hour ― based on state minimums and typical wages for domestic farm workers in the region. In Washington state, for example, the minimum wage for H-2A workers is $12.69 an hour. That’s significantly more than the state’s minimum wage of $9.47.
Some research has raised questions about whether visa-holding guest workers fare much better than unauthorized workers, however. An Economic Policy Institute study released last year found no significant difference in pay or conditions between the two groups.
As of now, farmers are able to get away with this. While advocates like Goldstein believe some employers are treating their workers fairly, the ones who aren’t continue to hinder their progress. And they need to be held accountable.
“There are many employers that comply with the law, but they are being undermined by the companies that want to reduce their cost and increase their profitability by cheating workers,” Goldstein said. “We need to create a law-abiding agricultural sector to benefit both the farmworkers and the employers that comply with the law.”
BuzzFeed has reported that the H-2A visa program and its sister program for short-term non-farm workers (H-2B) suffer from a host of other abuse problems. The Labor Department found that between 2010 and 2014 almost 1,000 companies had violated H-2 laws; however, fewer than 150 employers were banned from hiring guest workers through the program.
Still, some farmers believe the H-2A program is overburdened with regulations and expenses.
Dan Fazio, president of the Washington Farm Labor Association, connects farmers with migrant workers. He, too, described the H-2A program as flawed, but said he’s seen its popularity with participating farmworkers firsthand.
“Is it ideal to take a person from one country and bring them to another country to work? I don’t know,” Fazio said. “But I do know that the people coming to Washington state love the program and when their six months here are done and they go back, they make sure they’re on the list to come back next year.”
A lack of alternatives might have something to do with this popularity — and there’s no sign of that changing anytime soon.
But the lack of progress doesn’t mean the industry has to start from scratch to arrive at a solution, said Luawanna Halstrom, an agriculture consultant who previously served as president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers and has worked with a number of national and state organizations.
She’s hopeful that a fix is on the horizon — and it may not be as complex as it might initially seem.
“People are working with this old horse because it’s all they’ve got,” Halstrom said. “It can be a good program if we could reformulate it and figure out how to make it work.”
A revamped program would be welcomed by Morgenthau, too. Another delay like 2013’s might not turn out as well next time.
“The system should be streamlined,” he said. “When you have the whims of a bureaucracy and a heated political debate that could determine pretty quickly a positive or negative outcome in terms of being able to work with the qualified employees you have been working with, it’s just one too many variables to stomach.”
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said the H-2A program began in the 1990s. In fact, its current iteration was authorized in the 1980s. Additionally, the story said incorrectly that H-2A visa paperwork must be processed via mail, when it can be done either electronically or by mail. The headline on this story has been amended to better reflect the systemic problems with the H-2A program.