New regulations will complicate using migrants for farm work | TheFencePost.com

New regulations will complicate using migrants for farm work

Bill Jackson
Greeley, Colo.

More jobs will be available this summer to local residents as Weld County agricultural companies that need seasonal workers are shying away from new U.S. Department of Labor regulations dealing with hiring of migrant workers.

The problem, however, may be finding local workers who are willing to take the jobs.

The new rules, which become effective March 15, require companies that want H-2A visas for agricultural workers to provide proof they have looked for U.S. citizens to fill those jobs. In the past, companies only had to indicate they had looked for those potential employees.

But some of the county’s larger operations don’t want anything to do with the rules, for a variety of reasons.

Dewey Zabka of Zabka Farms/Martin Produce, which grows and markets onions and potatoes, said that company has never used H-2A and cut its demand for seasonal workers last year when it abandoned its transplant onion operation. Martin Produce now plants the onions it grows and markets.

Several seasonal agricultural companies have cut down labor costs by going to more mechanization, that too, forced by a lack of seasonal workers.

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“With the way unemployment is right now, there is no way the federal government is going to loosen up immigration laws,” Zabka said. So, he said, they are hiring local people to fill the positions it will need in Greeley later this year.

Bob Sakata, president of Sakata Farms, which grows and markets sweet corn, onions and other vegetables in Adams and Weld counties, said he and his family decided to abandon H-2A in mid-year last year and will not use it this season.

“With the way unemployment was going, we decided in June of last year, I think, to look hire local people who were filling out job applications. We realized it would take more tender love and care, but we did it,” Sakata said. That “tender love and care” as he called it involved extensive training for people not used to working in fields, but Sakata said that while they lost some, they plan to do the same this year. He said he plans to hire more than 200 people for the upcoming season, most coming back from last year.

“That H-2A is just too damn complicated,” he said, adding the workers he needs are seasonal and highly specialized, which means extra training for those new to the job requirements.

“We tell them we’ll supply the boots, raincoats and gloves, but they have to work rain or shine,” Sakata said.

It is too early to determine how many migrant farm workers might be coming to the county this year, said Terri Houkom, office manager for Head Start in Weld County, which runs an education program for the children of migrant workers.

“We’re just now gearing up with the migrant folks who will be coming this season, so we don’t yet have an idea how many might be coming,” she said.

Shawn Martini, director of communications for the Colorado Farm Bureau, said members of the state’s largest farm organization have not said anything specific on the new H-2A rules which were adopted by the labor department earlier this year, which he called “a step backward.”

Peach growers on the Western Slope haven’t expressed any concern about a shortage of workers, “but they have access to a different labor pool and seem to be hiring a lot of local people,” Martini said. But, he added, H-2A “wouldn’t be needed if we had local people to fill jobs.”

The U.S. Department of Labor is also due to issue information on wages for workers who qualify under H-2A. Martini said he expects those to be $1-$2 higher per hour than in the past, but he said it’s not clear if those wages will fluctuate over the term of a contract and wages will probably be different for different areas of the country.

Les Hardesty operates two dairies, one northwest of Greeley and one south of Windsor. He is chairman of the mountain area council of the Dairy Farmers of America.

H-2A, he said, is applicable only to seasonal workers and does not apply to dairies.

But the dairy industry as a whole, he added, continues to have a difficult time finding qualified workers to fill manual labor requirements on dairy farms.

“What we absolutely need is immigration reform. There has to be a method to get people to fill jobs that are needed, and that’s not just the dairy industry, and it’s not just agriculture,” Hardesty said. He said he knows of dairies that have advertised jobs available and the response has been less than good.

“There’s just not a lot of people willing to fill those jobs requiring manual labor,” he said.

Finding local labor to fill all of the seasonal jobs is a concern that is shared nationwide as well.

Tom Nassif, the chief executive of Western Growers, an association that represents farmers in California and Arizona, told the Wall Street Journal that finding help will be difficult because of the new regulations.

“Even with an economy that is suffering through 10 percent unemployment, domestic workers are not applying for these jobs. We know our produce is going to be harvested by foreign workers. The question is: Will it be here in the U.S. or will it be abroad?”

Zabka, of Martin Produce, is concerned about the way the federal government has ignored companies that depend on seasonal labor for the past few years.

“In my opinion, the government is working to put seasonal companies out of business, and that’s going to make us (the U.S.) more dependent on imported food. That is not good,” he said.

More jobs will be available this summer to local residents as Weld County agricultural companies that need seasonal workers are shying away from new U.S. Department of Labor regulations dealing with hiring of migrant workers.

The problem, however, may be finding local workers who are willing to take the jobs.

The new rules, which become effective March 15, require companies that want H-2A visas for agricultural workers to provide proof they have looked for U.S. citizens to fill those jobs. In the past, companies only had to indicate they had looked for those potential employees.

But some of the county’s larger operations don’t want anything to do with the rules, for a variety of reasons.

Dewey Zabka of Zabka Farms/Martin Produce, which grows and markets onions and potatoes, said that company has never used H-2A and cut its demand for seasonal workers last year when it abandoned its transplant onion operation. Martin Produce now plants the onions it grows and markets.

Several seasonal agricultural companies have cut down labor costs by going to more mechanization, that too, forced by a lack of seasonal workers.

“With the way unemployment is right now, there is no way the federal government is going to loosen up immigration laws,” Zabka said. So, he said, they are hiring local people to fill the positions it will need in Greeley later this year.

Bob Sakata, president of Sakata Farms, which grows and markets sweet corn, onions and other vegetables in Adams and Weld counties, said he and his family decided to abandon H-2A in mid-year last year and will not use it this season.

“With the way unemployment was going, we decided in June of last year, I think, to look hire local people who were filling out job applications. We realized it would take more tender love and care, but we did it,” Sakata said. That “tender love and care” as he called it involved extensive training for people not used to working in fields, but Sakata said that while they lost some, they plan to do the same this year. He said he plans to hire more than 200 people for the upcoming season, most coming back from last year.

“That H-2A is just too damn complicated,” he said, adding the workers he needs are seasonal and highly specialized, which means extra training for those new to the job requirements.

“We tell them we’ll supply the boots, raincoats and gloves, but they have to work rain or shine,” Sakata said.

It is too early to determine how many migrant farm workers might be coming to the county this year, said Terri Houkom, office manager for Head Start in Weld County, which runs an education program for the children of migrant workers.

“We’re just now gearing up with the migrant folks who will be coming this season, so we don’t yet have an idea how many might be coming,” she said.

Shawn Martini, director of communications for the Colorado Farm Bureau, said members of the state’s largest farm organization have not said anything specific on the new H-2A rules which were adopted by the labor department earlier this year, which he called “a step backward.”

Peach growers on the Western Slope haven’t expressed any concern about a shortage of workers, “but they have access to a different labor pool and seem to be hiring a lot of local people,” Martini said. But, he added, H-2A “wouldn’t be needed if we had local people to fill jobs.”

The U.S. Department of Labor is also due to issue information on wages for workers who qualify under H-2A. Martini said he expects those to be $1-$2 higher per hour than in the past, but he said it’s not clear if those wages will fluctuate over the term of a contract and wages will probably be different for different areas of the country.

Les Hardesty operates two dairies, one northwest of Greeley and one south of Windsor. He is chairman of the mountain area council of the Dairy Farmers of America.

H-2A, he said, is applicable only to seasonal workers and does not apply to dairies.

But the dairy industry as a whole, he added, continues to have a difficult time finding qualified workers to fill manual labor requirements on dairy farms.

“What we absolutely need is immigration reform. There has to be a method to get people to fill jobs that are needed, and that’s not just the dairy industry, and it’s not just agriculture,” Hardesty said. He said he knows of dairies that have advertised jobs available and the response has been less than good.

“There’s just not a lot of people willing to fill those jobs requiring manual labor,” he said.

Finding local labor to fill all of the seasonal jobs is a concern that is shared nationwide as well.

Tom Nassif, the chief executive of Western Growers, an association that represents farmers in California and Arizona, told the Wall Street Journal that finding help will be difficult because of the new regulations.

“Even with an economy that is suffering through 10 percent unemployment, domestic workers are not applying for these jobs. We know our produce is going to be harvested by foreign workers. The question is: Will it be here in the U.S. or will it be abroad?”

Zabka, of Martin Produce, is concerned about the way the federal government has ignored companies that depend on seasonal labor for the past few years.

“In my opinion, the government is working to put seasonal companies out of business, and that’s going to make us (the U.S.) more dependent on imported food. That is not good,” he said.