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Getting a leg up on farm labor issues

Laura Nelson for Progressive Forage Published on 30 March 2017
Jillien and Tyler Streit from Chester, Montana, with their family

Harvest season always seems to start in the same frantic, frustrating way.

Two months before the combines roll, Megan Hedges recounts, her brother starts calling everyone he knows who might be able to run a machine.

“He’s calling every friend he has, every college buddy or relative, just trying to find enough help to get us through harvest,” Hedges says. She manages the family grain farm’s operations and office duties in Chester, Montana. Her brother, Vince Mattson, manages the farm and custom farming business.

“It’s been completely impossible for us to find local labor – and not just local but searching the entire state of Montana,” Hedges says. They advertise, go to career fairs and reach out to colleges, still to no avail.

On the advice of a farming friend in North Dakota, the Mattsons decided to give the H-2A visa program a try two years ago. The H-2A visa program allows agriculturalists to hire foreign-born, seasonal labor.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well it’s gone,” Mattson says. “We just couldn’t find anyone here to work. We kept hiring, kept having problems, and they’d be gone. We just thought, ‘It can’t be worse than what we’re going through now’.”

Kristi Boswell works for the American Farm Bureau Federation as their director of congressional relations. One of the key issues she’s focused on is immigration reform.

“The H-2A program is a supplement to our labor force,” Boswell says. “Farmers have traditionally used that out of necessity – it’s a cumbersome, paperwork-laden program. Yet we see the number of farmers turning to that increasing.”

In 2016, she says close to 10 percent of American agriculture’s labor force will come from the H-2A visa program. That has more than doubled in the past four years, when that figure was around 4 percent, she points out.

Where are the labor needs?

Seasonal labor shortages have traditionally been viewed as a coastal or fruit and vegetable grower issue, Boswell says. According to Office of Foreign Labor Certification statistics, it primarily still is: Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Washington and California top the states of use, accounting for 50 percent of the H-2A visas issued in 2015.

Tobacco, berries, apples, hay and straw, and oranges make up the top five crops/occupations for utilizing the H-2A program, 31 percent of the uses in total. But with the increase in program use has also come an expansion in agricultural sectors and geographies.

In their small, north-central Montana farming community, the Mattsons say there is an abundance of seasonal work for about half the year and a lag in labor needs the other half.

Add that inconsistency to a state with a low unemployment rate to start with – Montana’s unemployment rate in August 2016 was 4.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – and it’s no wonder rural agriculturalists struggle to meet their labor needs.

“If this (H-2A) program weren’t an option, I don’t know where we’d go,” Mattson says. “I haven’t had any luck with domestic workers in 20 years. That’s sad, but otherwise the work just doesn’t get done.”

With improvements in equipment and technology, farmers are able to do more with less than ever before. Still, Mattson says, harvest especially just requires people willing to put in the hours to get the crops in on time.

They typically operate with four full-time employees, but during harvest season, they need 15. The past two years, two to three of those additional workers have come from South Africa.

Doug and Rosie Mosser are grain farmers and cattle ranchers near Beach, North Dakota. Doug’s brother started using the H-2A program about 15 years ago; they’re on their ninth year hiring seasonal, foreign workers.

Like many rural communities, they’ve seen the number of farms and ranches go down while the acreage needed to make them work goes up. With that, the number of young people living and willing to work in the country has also decreased.

The issue was amplified when the oil boom hit North Dakota in the mid-2000s.

“With the big oil money around, nobody’s going to blink an eye at doing labor on a farm or ranch versus working in the oil field for big money,” Doug says. “Now some of those guys want to make the same amount they got in the oil patch, plus insurance. And the average rancher just can’t do that.”

North Dakota’s unemployment rate was 3.1 percent, even further below the national 4.9 percent average.

“To me, it doesn’t matter if they’re foreign or local – it’s just the ability to get someone to work, period,” Rosie says.

What you need – housing, workers’ comp, transportation

Robert McCubbin is the president of H2 Visa Consultants LLC, based in Missoula, Montana. The Mattson family utilized their services in hiring their South African employees.

McCubbin has been in the business for six years and considers his firm a full-service agency – they handle the labor certification, work with labor recruitment associates, assist the workers in obtaining their paperwork and, ultimately, help arrange transportation to the worksite.

Brazer is a H-2A worker

Other services or agencies may just help with the labor certification process – the front-end paperwork – but leave the recruitment and follow-through to the employer.

“The process is lengthy and bureaucratic; it goes through multiple layers of government agencies,” McCubbin says. “It’s very heavily regulated. Sometimes, the regulations seem to contradict themselves, and there are lots of gray areas. That’s why it’s really difficult for employers to do this on their own.”

The H2 consultants work with approximately 200 employers with around 400 H-2A workers, and it’s increasing every year, he says.

The three major requirements for H-2A use is to provide adequate housing, workers’ compensation insurance and reimburse the workers’ transportation between their homes and the worksite. Housing must be up to OSHA standards, up to code and approved to accommodate the total number of workers they are applying for. Hotel accommodations, rentals or employer-owned housing are all options, as long as they pass inspection.

“The trickiest is with the state Department of Labor,” Hedges says. “There are so many housing regulations we have to abide by, and they keep getting stricter.”

In most scenarios, the employees pay their costs of transportation up-front – plane tickets vary depending on location, but most can expect around $500 to $2,000 per ticket – and the employer reimburses those costs in increments during and at the conclusion of the employment period.

In addition to workers’ compensation insurance, vehicle insurance policies vary – some may cover the foreign worker with a native driver’s license, others may require that worker to obtain an in-state license.

While the development of consulting firms or agencies has been helpful to alleviate the bureaucratic burden from producers, Boswell says the Farm Bureau is calling for reform to simplify and streamline the system so farmers and ranchers can rest assured they’ve followed the law properly.

“It’s so complicated and so burdensome to make sure they do it right,” Boswell says. “You shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer to hire a farm worker.”

They’re advocating for a new, flexible guest worker program to replace the H-2A system, promoting that it should operate under the Department of Agriculture rather than the Department of Labor, and that it should have provisions for seasonal and year-round labor needs.

What’s the cost?

Labor is farmers’ third-largest expense, accounting for 17 percent of production costs for the sector as a whole, according to a 2014 report by the World Agriculture Economic and Environment Service.

The farmers and ranchers who have hired seasonal foreign labor caution that it’s not intended to be a cost-saving measure but simply a solution to a labor fulfillment issue.

Farm labor Brazer

Jillien and Tyler Streit utilized the H-2A program for the first year this harvest, on recommendation from the Mattsons. During the farming season, the Streits go from needing their two full-time employees to needing up to six to accomplish the seasonal grain and pulse crop farming.

“You’re not particularly saving money doing this, but we do feel like we’re saving turnover, and turnover costs money,” Streit says. “We have two local guys who work for us full time, and they are worth their weight in gold. We couldn’t employ anyone else full time, year-round, and we just can’t find temporary seasonal help that’s reliable.”

The cost of hiring foreign workers is comparable to local hires, Mattson says, once they add in the extra fees with the hiring processes, consultant agency, housing and travel. The associated fees up-front can be a challenge, Hedges says.

Each state has a minimum wage requirement called the adverse effect wage rate, set specifically to prevent foreign labor from undercutting potential job competition. In Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, that wage is set at $11.75 per hour. In Nebraska, the Dakotas and Kansas, the adverse effect wage rate is $13.80 per hour, the highest in the nation.

“But we pay them more, because they are worth it,” Hedges says. “Especially during harvest – they’re hard workers and want to get those extra hours in.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: Jillien and Tyler Streit from Chester, Montana, with their family have utilized foreign workers to fill their labor gap. “This is the way people should be coming into our country to work. I do think it’s unfair that there are so many people coming in to our country and aren’t doing it right. This is the way it’s accounted for.” 

PHOTO 2: “Of course I want to hire good, hard-working Montana farm boys. But there are good, hard-working farm boys all over the world looking for an opportunity, too,” Jill Streit says.

PHOTO 3: “Brazer has worked hard; we’ve been very lucky to have him.” All photos by Laura Nelson.

Laura Nelson is a freelance writer from Big Timber, Montana.

Their best advice –  get help, start early, communicate

The Mattson family found using a full-service agency like the H-2A Visa Consultants made a laborious paperwork undertaking more manageable.

“Our visa consulting firm does the majority of the legwork,” Megan Hedges says. “If I were to do it on my own, it would be a nightmare.”

If you want to have a seasonal employee on the farm by April, she says the paperwork better get started in January. The Department of Labor is legally required to respond prior to the filed start date, but Boswell said that deadline has frequently been unmet in recent years.

In 2010, the National Council of Agriculture Employers showed that workers arrived on the job an average of 22 days after the date of need.

“You really have to plan far out and get your ducks in a row to get a guy lined out,” Hedges says. “For us, when it’s a long season, we get them for the full duration, so they’re here and they already know the system and where to go, what to do, how we work.”

One reason for the lengthy process is the required job advertising. Potential employers must advertise the position locally and in two surrounding states for two months.

“If, in that time, somebody qualified applied, that would be great,” Hedges says. “We’d love to fill those positions domestically. But so far we haven’t had anyone that was local even apply.”

The Mossers have utilized several different agencies or consultants over the years to assist in the H-2A process. They most recently turned to the University of Minnesota, Minnesota Agricultural Student Trainee Program (MAST) for the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program, which is more focused on an educational exchange. Their experience has varied over the years, as different consulting companies have come and gone.

They’ve hired workers primarily from Brazil and Europe, with varying results. Many have farm or ranch experience but need training on specific machinery; others have no agricultural background.

“They can be pretty green,” Mosser says, advising potential employers to look beyond a resume to determine the applicant’s proficiency. Out of the nine years they’ve utilized foreign help, Mosser said they’ve had two bad experiences, each stemming primarily from language barriers.

“Before you tell them OK to hire, we learned you better make sure you can get on the computer and Skype or Facetime or somehow visit with them instead of relying 100 percent on those forms,” Rosie says, to make sure their English proficiency is as stated on their resume.

The Streit family in Chester, Montana, found that the “What’s App” smartphone application is one of the most reliable ways to communicate between countries.

“If we could get the same kid back, that would help – but you have to re-train each one over and over again,” Doug says. With the J-1 Visa Exchange program, the young men they’ve hired are college students who are ready to return for school and then have full-time jobs ready in their home countries.

The Mattsons have had luck getting the same worker back two years in a row through the H-2A program and a bonus: “We really liked him, he did a great job, and we asked if he would come back the next year and if he would recommend a friend,” Vince says. They offered a finder’s fee bonus, and the next year they had two good hands, with hopes both will be back next season.

“It’s the same as hiring anyone else,” Mattson says. “A resume is a resume, and you don’t really know what you’re going to get until they step off that plane.”

Contributed by Laura Nelson.

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