H2A Guest-Worker Program

April 9, 2012

This letter of mine was posted in the Lake County Development Council (LCDC) March 2012 Newsletter:

H2A Guest-Worker Program: a regulatory nightmare for local employers

With all the hue and cry regarding undocumented workers, you would think our country would have an effective guest-worker VISA program for agriculture. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Less than 4% of agricultural workers nationally arrive through our troubled H2A VISA program. Over a dozen nurseries in Northeastern Ohio brave the regulatory labyrinth of housing requirements, transportation requirements, wage requirements, fees and arcane rules that seem to change with each season in order to secure an experienced, reliable and legal work force.

Employers must pay upwards of $11 per hour this year and between $1500 and $2000 in out-of-pocket costs for each guest-worker. Required housing must undergo annual inspection by two agencies with different rule-books. One of the biggest obstacles is that Job & Family Serviceagencies can and do make ‘referrals’ of local unemployed workers for each VISA position. These ‘unvetted’ (possibly illegal aliens) local workers can thereby ‘bump’ a guest-worker and the employer must either hire more workers than anticipated or forgo the VISA worker after incurring upfront costs.

Experience has shown that less than 10% of the local unemployed workers show up for their first day of agricultural work, much less stay on through the harvest season. An unfortunate consequence of H2A participation in recent years has been a high incidence of DOL workplace audits. Local growers have incurred fines and back wages for a variety of complex transgressions. In one case a grower was fined for not paying local student workers the same wage as ‘guest-workers’. In another, a grower was fined over $50,000 for wage-hour violations related to H2A participation. Why do growers continue to request guest-workers through thisbroken system? ‘We can’t afford to risk losing a substantial portion of our workforce in the spring or fall because of false documentation,’ reply many.