Labor Change Could Impact Farmers
WAYNE COUNTY - As the weather improves and farmers prepare for this year’s growing season, many are wondering if a sudden change to a federal labor program will leave them without farmworkers in their fields and orchards.
“The most critical answer farmers are looking for is can they still submit applications under the new rules, or are they stopped right now,” Wayne County Farm Bureau President Phil Wagner said. He was referring to Labor Secretary Hilda Solís’ suspension of H-2A rule modifications affecting guest farmworkers that former President George W. Bush had signed before leaving office.
The issue is critical in Wayne, where nearly 5,000 farmworkers are employed, more than in any other county in the state, according to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture. Many fruit growers use the H-2A program to bring workers from Mexico, and more were planning on it since the modification relaxed some requirements.
Solís issued the nine-month suspension for the program modifications March 13, her first day in office.
Opponents to the Bush changes said it hurt immigrants and took jobs away from them in favor of non-citizens.
But proponents of the modifications argue they were designed to provide an efficient and secure program for farmers to legally fulfill their need for agricultural workers within the law rather than outside of it.
Fruit grower Doug DeBadts of Sodus used H-2A for the first time in 2008; he said the changes were sorely needed.
“It was definitely frustrating, one of the most frustrating things I ever dealt with,” said DeBadts, whose H-2A application was initially denied, and then approved. He said he’s convinced if his crew leader and her son were not at the U.S. Consulate in Mexico to walk workers through the process, they would not have gotten here at all. As it was, it took a month longer than he counted upon.
“I understand the (Bush changes) were going to make it a little better,” he said.
The modifications reduced current limitations and certain delays faced by U.S. employers and relaxed the limitations on their ability to petition for multiple, unnamed agricultural workers. It extended from 10 to 30 days the time a temporary agricultural worker may remain in the U.S. after the end of employment. The rule also reduced from six to three months the time a temporary agricultural worker must wait outside the U.S. before he or she is eligible re-enter the country under H-2A status.
The proposed H-2A rules suspension is open to a 10-day public comment period that will expire the end of the week. Growers here and across the country are expected to oppose the suspension, especially because it’s not clear what it means, according to New York Farm Bureau.
“This sudden action severely disrupts many farming operations in New York just before the growing season,” according to an alert Farm Bureau sent its members. “As a result, farms may not be certain of having adequate farm labor.”
DeBadts said he’s already filed a written objection to the change. Louise Hoffman Broach | Star Editor
Wednesday, March 25 2009