While grower-shippers appear willing to use the H-2A program for sourcing workers, produce industry and grower labor groups say the program remains costly, burdensome and difficult to use.

The differences in rules enforced by the Bush and Obama administrations have also created confusion and higher costs, agricultural labor procurement leaders report.

Grower groups call H-2A programs unworkable

Gasperini


Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, Washington, D.C., said he’s hearing — but not seeing — reluctant use by growers.  

He said extreme and increasingly aggressive immigration enforcement of I-9 audits remains the counterbalance and has pressured many growers to use the H-2A program.

Though most growers met the mid-May deadline for securing their workers under the Bush rules, Gasperini said he fears rules enforced by Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis are expected to be more unwieldy and may force more growers to drop out of the program.

“If the Department of Labor wanted to kill the program, they have taken the steps in that direction,” Gasperini said. “It’s hard to believe that is their intention, but they have made it so convoluted and difficult that it’s hard to justify and navigate.”

Gasperini said the government has issued threats and fines against many growers that likely aren’t valid, as the growers were following the previous rules while immigration authorities were enforcing a mix of the Bush and Obama administration rules.

Courts may not always recognize that growers were following the rules in effect at the time, and appeals courts often overturn those rulings, Gasperini said.

Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., said the program remains challenging to growers.

“People were beginning to look at it as a viable option,” he said. “The new regulations that have come into effect have really made people stop and reassess whether it’s a viable option for them. There is a lot of confusion and frustration the way the rules are. I think people want to use it but they want a program that works.”

Guenther said the program’s intent was to develop a workable and feasible guest worker program.

That effort, however, cannot be done through the current regulations, he said.

“I don’t think you will be able to solve this through a regulatory process,” Guenther said. “It has to be done through the legislative process, to get a workable guest worker program that’s comprehensive and can work all across the country.”

In fiscal year 2009, the labor department issued 149,763 H-2A worker visas, down from 173,103 reported in fiscal year 2008.

A majority of the workers are listed in Arizona, Florida, Texas and California.

Gasperini said he thinks the program should have expanded as it’s the only legal guest worker program available for agriculture.