Trials of the H-2A System

By Irwin Speizer

Aug. 17, 2006

In the heightened security that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks, Luawanna Hallstrom discovered just how dependent she had become on illegal farmworkers from south of the border.

   Hallstrom grows tomatoes on some 1,200 acres near Oceanside, California, including 600 acres leased from Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base. After 9/11, the base stepped up security, which meant government officials carefully screened every one of her workers.

    What they found startled Hallstrom: 75 percent of her laborers had fraudulent documents. Hallstrom typically hires 1,000 seasonal workers, but she suddenly couldn’t find enough legal workers to harvest her crop at Pendleton. Much of it rotted in the field. Hallstrom says she lost $2.5 million worth of tomatoes.

    She’s still in business today and still using seasonal imported farmworkers. But now instead of hiring laborers who show up at harvest time, she contracts to bring in prehired temporary workers from Mexico under the H-2A farm guest worker program, a legal method for farmers to import foreign labor. Each year, she contracts for about 500 workers from Mexico through the program and sends them back home after the harvest is complete.

    Few farmers have taken the H-2A route, and Hallstrom says she opted to use it only because she had no alternative for harvesting her Pendleton crops. Hallstrom, who is politically well-connected, decries the program’s complex rules and requirements, adding that she once had to call the White House for help when her H-2A application became hopelessly bogged down.

    “H-2A is very difficult,” Hallstrom says. “It involves so many different agencies: the Department of Labor, Homeland Security, the American Consulate in Mexico, the California Employment Development Department. If you have a glitch, it can derail the whole process.”

    Hallstrom and other farmers have been lobbying for a streamlined agricultural guest worker program that would provide a way for farmers to get legal foreign labor and stem the flow of illegal workers. While Congress debates the merits of a guest worker program more accommodating to farmers, Hallstrom is among those who continue to rely on H-2A foreign guest workers to harvest their crops.

    But the ultimate goal for many farmers and for other businesses that rely on cheap immigrant labor is a set of rules that would allow easy access to temporary workers from outside the U.S. Although there are laws allowing guest workers on farms and in other industries, the measures are complex and difficult for employers to use.

    To qualify under H-2A, Hallstrom has to demonstrate that she has tried and been unable to recruit domestic workers. She must then apply for a specific number of H-2A workers from a foreign country and guarantee they will have jobs for the duration of a contract.

    She must transport the workers from their home country to their jobs and back again. Hallstrom must provide housing. And, she also must provide three meals a day at a cost to workers set by the Labor Department (the current rate is $8.76 per day).

    The application process can be daunting. Hallstrom listed among her job requirements that applicants could not be colorblind. The Labor Department initially rejected the application, saying the requirement could be construed as discriminatory. Hallstrom had the rejection overturned by explaining that in harvesting tomatoes, pickers had to be able to discern shades of red.

    Most farmers balk at having to provide room and board, yet Hallstrom had an edge. Her company built a dormitory-style worker housing complex in 1986 as a way of helping retain a steady workforce. It cost about $2.5 million, but Hallstrom said it paid off in a healthier and more reliable workforce. Now she is able to use the housing for her H-2A workers.

    Despite the extra costs to transport, feed and house her workers, Hallstrom says she has still managed to make money on her farm using H-2A. But she’s unsure how long that will last. Wages under H-2A are set by the Department of Labor, which has steadily upped the hourly rate during the past three years. What started at $8.02 per hour went up to $8.55. This year the rate is $9, an increase Hallstrom says will cost her farm $500,000.

    “You have to pay $9, plus free housing, plus three meals a day and transportation back and forth,” Hallstrom says. “That makes it near to impossible. The only reason my family is holding out is because we really believe that reform will happen.”

    What Hallstrom and other farmers want is a less bureaucratic guest worker program that gives farmers easier access to foreign workers and greater control over their costs. But critics warn that giving farmers too much control over foreign workers can lead to abuses: low pay, poor working conditions and unsatisfactory housing.

    “Cheap labor becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Ira Mehlman, media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “It creates conditions that shouldn’t be tolerated in a country like the U.S.” Rather than allowing farmers to import cheap foreign labor, the government should encourage technological innovation like mechanization that would reduce the reliance on cheap labor, Mehlman says.

    Hallstrom says the reality is that cheap labor is a necessity in a crop like tomatoes. “If we do not get immigration reform, we will not be here,” she says. “We will have to go to Mexico or someplace else.”

Workforce Management, August 14, 2006, p. 25Subscribe Now!

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with