• Guest Workers Head to New York, U.S. Farms at Historic Rates
  • October 17, 2017 | Author: Leonard J. D'Arrigo
  • Law Firm: Whiteman Osterman & Hanna LLP - Albany Office
  • The Albany-based attorney connects New York farmers with guest workers from outside the country. And this year business is booming, with his client base expanding by about 30 percent.

    Both in New York and nationally, farmers are increasingly turning to the H-2A worker visa program that D’Arrigo assists with as a way to plug holes in their workforce and, in some cases, to avoid the intensifying scrutiny of undocumented workers from federal immigration officers.

    Last week the Department of Labor reported that it approved more than 69,000 H-2A farm job applications in the first three months of this year -- a 36 percent increase over the same period last year, and one that farmers say indicates the need for comprehensive immigration reform rather than crackdowns that can scare off scarce workers and grind production to a halt. (H-2A workers in the country numbered in the thousands only a few decades ago, according to the Brookings Institution.)

    “Farmers who were never touching (H-2A) are beginning to use it,” said Steven McKay, a Hudson-based consultant who has worked in the sector for decades. “They just can’t find workers. The work pool has dried up.”

    Even before Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were ramping up their sweeps of Hudson Valley farms, New Yorkers were slowly turning to the H-2A program, which for decades has brought Hispanic and Caribbean people to the Empire State for seasonal apple-picking jobs or other farm work. The state in 2016 received more than 5,5000 such workers, a 31 percent increase since 2010 that farmers blame to varying degrees on the shrinking pool of native-born farmers and the constant uncertainties of federal immigration policy.

    The Department of Labor has not released state-by-state H-2A numbers for this year, but farmers from across New York and the nation have generally agreed that the growing scrutiny of their workforces has pushed more of their colleagues into H-2A.

    "Many farmers are concerned about what's going to happen" to the supply of foreign workers, Laura Ten Eyck, vice president of Indian Ladder Farms in Altamont, said in February. "It's seasonal and it's hard work, and it's hard to find American workers to fill the jobs.”

    For years the government “had turned a blind eye” to the estimated 50 percent of American farm workers who are undocumented, D’Arrigo said, “but with increased enforcement and everything that’s going on politically, I think a lot of farms are scared into compliance.”

    It’s a costly and frustrating system that neither farmers nor workers view as ideal.

    Farmers using H-2A labor have to post the job openings for weeks before filling them; pay the regional prevailing wage (in New York H-2A workers make about $11 an hour, according to the Department of Labor); and have to provide housing and other costly amenities to the workers.

    For some workers, the program is not much better. Because they rely so heavily on their bosses for basic needs -- and because they lack many of the collective bargaining rights afforded to traditional American employees -- farm workers are uniquely susceptible to hazardous work conditions and exploitative practices, with virtually no legal recourse at their disposal.

    New York Reps. Elise Stefanik and Chris Collins are pushing legislation that would streamline some of the H-2A processes, and bring the program under the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    The bill has support from the New York Farm Bureau, which for years has called for reforms to the federal immigration system to help with some of the red tape that can keep farmers waiting in limbo for workers. But it’s also likely to be met with fierce opposition from workers’ rights groups that worry it will streamline visa issuances at the expense of already vulnerable workers.