Farmworker advocacy coalitions are calling on the Department of Labor to retract changes to a seasonal worker visa that they say put American workers at a disadvantage.
The H-2A seasonal agricultural guest worker program allows agricultural employers to hire foreign workers for seasonal jobs if they can show there is a shortage of labor and that the working conditions and wages won't be negatively impacted.
The Department of Labor isn't saying publicly whether it is in the process or if it has already revised its process for issuing the visas, which has long been seen as cumbersome by agribusinesses.
Department spokesman Terry Shawn said only, "we can't comment on any proposed rule changes," and referred the Deseret Morning News to an August statement by the Bush administration on immigration policy. A White House fact sheet from that date says because of "severe labor shortages," the president has directed the Labor Department to review H-2A policy and "institute changes that will provide farmers with an orderly and timely flow of legal workers, while protecting the rights of laborers."
Clarifications for procedures related to the visas are outlined in an advisory issued Nov. 14 by Assistant Secretary Emily Stover DeRocco and released publicly this month by Farmworker Justice, one of 24 advocacy groups that signed a letter calling the policy change an illegal one that took place without allowing for public comment.
"The policies in this memo will enable hundreds of agricultural employers to avoid the need to compete for U.S. workers through improved wages and working conditions," the letter says.
In Utah, 100,000 jobs are tied directly to agriculture, and the industry contributes $4 billion to $5 billion to the economy, said Randy Parker, chief executive officer of the Utah Farm Bureau.
Parker hadn't seen the memo but did say the seasonal guest-worker program needs revamping so that employers can get the help they need. When local labor isn't available, a delay of even a few weeks can be disastrous for businesses such as orchards with narrow harvesting windows, he said.
"We have labor needs that are going unmet," he said. "We have farmers that are in need of workers on Utah dairies right now; we can't fill jobs in the food processing industry. ... Milking cows for four, five or six hours at 3 o'clock in the morning and then again at 6 at night is not a glamorous job."
Third-generation orchard owner William McMullin agreed, saying the government needs to find a way to shorten the application process for seasonal worker visas so farmers have enough laborers to harvest crops. The McMullins, who have owned their orchard at 5625 West and 12000 South in Payson since the 1920s, have difficulty finding enough local help so they bring in H-2A workers even though the family has to apply for the visas three months in advance and pay for seasonal workers' travel expenses.
"We just can't survive without a good source of labor," he said. "If we can't harvest, we don't really have a lot of choice on how we're going to make money."
Last year, McMullin contracted five people to come to work for him, but their visas were delayed two weeks, and the McMullins lost 50,000 pounds of sweet cherries due to the shortage of manpower.
"That didn't help us out," he said.
This year, McMullin estimates they will apply for as many as 40 seasonal worker visas. He said finding easier, more efficient ways to process seasonal worker visas would be a big boost to the agricultural industry so farmers "can get them up here and get them working."
"We have to jump through so many hoops," he said. "It's quite the process."
However, Bruce Goldstein, executive director of Farmworker Justice, says the policy change does nothing to address his organization's estimates that as many as 70 percent of the nation's estimated 2.5 million farmworkers are undocumented. There were 46,432 H-2A guest workers in 2006, according to Department of Homeland Security records, which Goldstein says leaves roughly 750,000 U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents in the agriculture industry.
"It will allow employers to falsely claim they can't find any U.S. workers, so they can hire foreign guest workers who they can pay less," Goldstein said. "It's the worst of both worlds. This is not sensible immigration policy."
But McMullin sees the situation as a win-win. He gets his crops harvested before they go down, and the seasonal workers are able to come to the United States legally to make a decent living earning an average $8 per hour on the McMullin farm, he said.
"It's good for them, it's good for me," he said.
McMullin also said workers who come as seasonal work won't try to stay illegally when their visas expire."They're going to go back," he said. "They want to go back to their families."