ATLANTA — Georgia farmers claim a U.S. labor shortage is the reason they're increasingly turning to migrant workers but advocates say a broken visa program means both foreign and domestic workers suffer.
Georgia is the nation’s highest user of the H-2A guest worker program — a federal program that brings migrant workers from neighboring countries seasonally to work in U.S. agriculture.
During fiscal year 2019, the Peach State surpassed all others, with 12% of the total workforce coming out of the H-2A program, according to the federal Office of Foreign Labor Certification. Nationwide in fiscal year 2018, 242,000 seasonal foreign workers were approved for hire.
Although a costly program, a shortage of domestic labor has caused farmers and producers to lean heavily on a migrant workforce — many farmers using guest workers for more than half of their workforce. Labor brokers connect growers to the foreign labor workforce, who contract for a season. Farmers who can't keep up with costs are removed from the program.
“We are blessed with a diverse, billion-dollar fresh fruit and vegetable industry in Georgia,” Gary Black, state department of agriculture commissioner said, “without any stable, reliable, legal workforce, all of that would be impossible.”
Proposed federal changes on the horizon could bring necessary updates to the program — removing federal red-tape and making adjustments to better improve workforce entry — but changes also could mean steep cost hikes to an already expensive program, industry leaders said.
But with few other options — local workers proving unreliable and often failing to pass drug tests — farmers are at the mercy of federal regulations.
Other industries that require year-round employees feel left in the dark without any foreign visa program to bring in low-labor workers for extended periods of time. With federal lawmakers in a partisan standstill on immigration reform in Washington, D.C., rural Georgia farmers and producers are left playing the waiting game.
Baldwin County Commissioner Sammy Hall, who operates a small farm and raises a few head of cattle, said there is a huge need for immigration reform — not just in Georgia but throughout the country.
“It’s a big problem,” Hall said. “But if we did not have the immigrants, there is no way Georgia could handle the products that we grow and get them out of the fields.”
For rural farmers, labor uncertainty looms
Heath Wetherington, director of operations at Baker Farms in Moultrie, said its operations are “100% dependent on the H-2A workforce.” The vegetable producer has been participating in the program for more than two decades.
“There’s just no way to have a dependable workforce without the H-2A program,” he said.
Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, said there is no source of domestic labor willing to do the hard work of harvesting produce. Producers are dependent on workers who have the hard-working mentality to get produce out of fields.
Lewis Taylor Farms is one of the largest employers in Tift County and one of the largest operations of its kind in the Southeast. The farm encompasses 7,000 acres of produce such as squash, eggplant, cucumbers, bell peppers, specialty peppers, strawberries, a variety of greens, broccoli and melons.
Out of about 715 employees, Bill Brim, farm chief executive officer, said 500 are contracted migrant workers through the H-2A program.
“We still use locals as well,” Brim said, “you just can’t get that many.”
A 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture backs growers' claims of a labor shortage — findings show fewer laborers from Mexico are willing to take American farming jobs.
One of the largest arguments against foreign workers is that they are taking jobs away from “American” workers. Agricultural department officials and farmers alike said this is simply not true. Across industries, domestic workers have proven themselves unreliable and unwilling to do low-level labor work, they said.
Black said producers voice frustrations to him about the poor quality of local workers.
“I have heard (producers) say many times, I will hire every reliable, drug-free, sober, dependable, local worker that has the skills to do what I need to do,” Black told CNHI. “I will hire them today, please tell me where I can find them.”
Farmers who use the H-2A program are also required to advertise jobs locally. Black said in one case a few years back, he heard from a farmer in Tifton who interviewed more than a thousand local workers only to have nine remain with him throughout the season.
Charles Hall, with the growers association, said the idea that guest workers are taking jobs away from Americans is the biggest misconception that needs to be corrected.
"These are jobs that U.S. workers don’t want. If U.S. workers wanted these jobs — and it’s not jobs that U.S. workers don’t want because they’re underpaid. Some of these jobs are getting paid $16-17 dollars per hour,” Hall said. “They’re temporary jobs, they’re seasonal jobs and they’re hard work. ... I know there are a lot of American citizens who think this is taking work from American workers but it’s not.”
Dairy industry owners also voiced concerns that hiring local workers who have substance abuse problems risks the chance of animal mistreatment.
For dairies, year-round demand
Pete Gelber, owner of Barrington Dairy in Montezuma, said he is “the American dream.”
Gelber's grandparents immigrated from eastern Europe to the south Bronx where he grew up. After studying at Cornell, he followed a career path through the dairy industry and now owns his Georgia dairy farm that produces more than 16% of the state’s milk.
But Gelber said with limited local workers and no visa program to bring low-labor foreign workers for longer periods of time, big and small dairies alike are suffering.
“The bottom line is we need lower labor employees to milk cows,” Gelber told CNHI. “There’s definitely a labor shortage and without foreign workers it’s very hard.”
The dairy industry employs foreign workers through visas that require some level of education. Foreign workers who travel to the farm are trained veterinarians, engineers and other higher skilled professionals. Those workers don’t work alongside Gelber’s current 60 employees who milk cows — facing the hard labor of milking, odd hours and weekend shifts.
Even with as little as 25 more milkers, he said, would make operations run more smoothly.
Gelber said last year an average lower labor employee made about $43,000 on his farm. Despite the competitive pay, local workers are unreliable and often disqualified from work for poor attendance or substance abuse problems.
“It doesn’t matter how much you pay for these low-end jobs, people don’t want to do them,” Gelber said. “I really don’t think it’s taking jobs from Americans, because Americans don’t want to work here.”
Gelber and Farrah Newberry, Georgia Milk Producers Association, both testified in front of the Senate study committee on agriculture, forestry and landscape workforce that dairies have been left with little options for workers.
“There is an H-2A program out there and it just doesn’t work for the dairy industry,” Newberry told lawmakers. “It’s a seasonal program and last time I checked cows need to be milked 24/7, 365 days a year.”
In 2017, U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wisconsin, introduced the “Defending the Agricultural Industry’s Requirements Year-round Act of 2017." The legislation would have expanded the H-2A program to include year-round dairy positions for foreign workers. Employers could obtain visas for 18-month periods which were renewable at the end of each period.
But farmworker advocates opposed the legislation saying the expansion of the program would leave migrant workers in "perpetual guest worker status" — limiting opportunities for workers to gain immigration status or citizenship.
Federal overhaul of H-2A program
The H-2A program is so complex that farmers often spend large sums of money contracting experts to do their paperwork.
John McKissick, a well-known agriculture economist and professor at University of Georgia, said an overhaul of the program by the United States Department of Labor has the potential to make some much needed changes but also potential to drastically raise costs for farmers.
In July of this year, the department of labor posted proposed changes to the program on the Federal Register and opened the changes for comments.
“These proposals have a lot of good things in them. They make it much more flexible in terms of how you receive workers. You can receive workers in staggered groups so that fits more with the jobs that you need for them to do at different points in the season,” McKissick said. “... But the things they were unhappy with go to two areas: one is the determination of wage rates. It appears that the DOL is proposing different classifications for different jobs and a wage rate severance for each one.”
Changes to worker wage rates — based on what level of skill they are providing — could cost farmers much more per season. For instance, a tractor driver and a harvester may have different wage rates, but what would a worker be paid if he drove a tractor and harvested on the same day?
More than 600 commenters weighed in on the documents, including the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
Wage rate per employee is much more than a base hourly rate, the association wrote, with additional costs of housing, transportation and program fees, migrant workers are already more expensive than domestic labor.
A 2017 University of Florida study on the guest worker program in the citrus industry found that on average, guest workers are paid $3 more per hour than domestic workers on top of the nearly $2,000 of additional benefits.
McKissick said data to support the different wage levels does not exist. Guest worker programs are already costly, he said, but it’s the only source of stable labor for producers.
Brim, with Lewis Taylor Farms in Tift County, said farms are already struggling to pay current wage rates with additional housing and transportation costs and thinks the differentiated pay scale will tie things tighter in red tape.
“I just don’t see how it’s going to work,” he said.
Growers are happy with some of the proposed changes, Hall with the growers association said. Updates will allow for staggered entry of contracted guest workers. Under current rules, if a farmer contracts 100 workers, they must all come at the same time. Proposed changes would allow farmers to bring them in at different times of the season.
Adjustments to the program are welcome and long overdue, but Commissioner Black said producers would much rather see the program housed under the U.S. Department of Agriculture as opposed to the department of labor.
“I think it’s time for a 21st century H-2A and I am just hopeful Congress is going to listen to some of these good ideas and perhaps we’ll see a better future...” Black said. “(Producers) believe that the USDA understands the task, understands the importance of filling the needs of the program and might be just a little more customer-service oriented, as opposed to just being a number at the department of labor.”
National farmworker advocates have noted a growing concern for the well-being of foreign workers as proposed changes progress toward implementation.
Federal charges filed for mistreatment of foreign workers are not uncommon. Four Moultrie residents were indicted earlier this year for trafficking Georgia H-2A workers to Wisconsin to work illegally. Wisconsin Public Radio reported the Mexican workers contracted through the H-2A visa program were kept in cramped and isolated living areas. The workers said their passports and other personal documents were taken.
A small provision in the new proposals would reduce frequency of federal inspections of worker housing, allowing workers to "self-inspect." The provision would significantly increase chances of dangerous conditions and substandard living quarters for workers, according to Farmworker Justice, a national farmworker advocacy group.
While farmers voice concern over possible wage hikes, advocates are already battling attempted wage reductions. In March of this year, a federal lawsuit filed by the National Council of Agricultural Employers that demanded nationwide wage cuts for H-2A guest workers was dismissed.
The wage changes are opposed by advocates and growers alike, but for opposite reasons. While farmers say wage changes will hike costs on their end, the shift in wage calculation would leave guest workers with a decrease in pay. The changes also create the chance for workers to flip the bill on transportation costs, instead of growers historically covering costs.
The United Farm Workers, the nation's largest farmworker labor union, said the H-2A changes under the Trump administration would give U.S. growers the opportunity to deny available domestic labor and "hire more temporary foreign field laborers and pay them less." The changes, the union says, sets a "new low of hypocrisy."
"Trump’s rhetoric and policy towards immigrants and people of color can be simply summed up as go home to the countries from which you came — even if they come from the United States," the union said in a statement. "Yet his H-2A rules-changing scheme would make it easier to deny jobs to domestic farm workers so growers can hire more temporary foreign agricultural guest workers and pay them less, thereby depressing pay for domestic workers."
In addition to Riley Bunch, SunLight Project reporters Terry Richards, Billy W. Hobbs, Savannah Donald and Eve Copeland-Brechbiel contributed to this report.