YORK (Pennsylvania) DAILY RECORD

April 5, 2017

 

Who will pick Pennsylvania crops? Not American workers

 

Foreign farm workers more than willing to fill jobs Americans shun

 

By Rick Lee

 

In the middle of the vocal crowd at U.S. Rep. Scott Perry’s town hall meeting, following a question on stricter immigration enforcement, a woman shouted, "Are white men going to pick apples?"

The answer, according to Tom Haas, owner of Cherry Hill Orchards in Lancaster County, is no.

The survival of his family business is at the mercy of the seasons. "Time is of the essence" when fruit needs to be picked, he said.

And, years ago, finding locals to work on his family farm went from difficult to impossible.

So, Haas relies on foreign workers to pick the cherries, peaches and apples at his 140-acre fruit farm in time for market.

"The local labor force is just not reliable," Haas said. "I got tired of being stood up. We can't operate like that."

In years past, he would hire locals to work the fields during the picking seasons. Some didn't last past noon on the first day.

"It's hard work, but we're not killing ourselves," he said.

For the past eight or nine years, Haas has used foreign workers. Those seasonal pickers enter the United States on H-2A visas, which allow them to work for a specific employer, do a specific job, and then leave the country when that job is done.

Haas said he has been fortunate to be able to hire the same people -- brothers, sons and in-laws of a Mexican farming family -- since he signed up with the visa program. That saves him the need to train new workers every year.

Before an employer can hire a foreign worker on a seasonal visa, the job must first be advertised to American workers. Only after employers can demonstrate an unfilled need for labor can they turn to the guest worker visa programs.

Beyond wages, Haas must pay for the workers' transportation from Mexico to Lancaster County, provide suitable housing and pay for the workers' transportation home. The workers also are covered by mandatory workers compensation insurance.

Wages for H-2A workers are set by the U.S. Department of Labor and vary from $10.28 an hour in some southern states to $13.79 in the northern breadbasket states -- North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. Wages in Pennsylvania for 2017 are $12.11 an hour.

Haas said the program is expensive, since the orchard does not make money until its crops are sold.

Guest workers are the only way he can stay in business, Haas said.

If access to the foreign labor force was not available, Haas said, "I would probably look for the exit real quick. I couldn't do it without them."

Along with the H-2A farm worker program, there is the H-2B visa, a program for non-farm workers,which includes jobs such as landscaping. Those workers also must return home after the season is over.

Scott Sheely, the special assistant to the agriculture department's workforce development program, said the agriculture department is "seeing a trend" of Pennsylvania farmers moving toward hiring foreign workers for farm help.

Sheely said most of those temporary workers are coming from Central and South America and countries such as El Salvador and Jamaica. He clarified that these seasonal employees are "guest" workers.

"They are not migrants," Sheely said. "Under the H-2A and H-2B programs, they are going to come here to work, and then they are going home."

Sheely said that statistics from 2014-15 show that 73 percent of Pennsylvania agricultural laborers were foreign born. That is just the  number of workers who could be identified through a national agriculture survey.

He said as many as half of all farm workers may be undocumented -- working in the U.S. without a visa or a green card -- so the total is "unknown, really."

In 2015, 773 foreign workers came to Pennsylvania under H-2A visas and 2,877 under H-2B programs. Pennsylvania was 29th among all states in employing H-2A workers and sixth in H-2B workers.

But, there clearly is a stigma in the south-central area where hiring foreign workers is concerned. Several farmers, orchard growers and landscapers in south-central Pennsylvania declined to comment about their use of guest workers.

The owner of one nursery in northern York County said the business did employ seasonal visa workers and was happy with those workers but did not want to speak on the record.

On the eastern edge of the county, Brad Groff, owner of Wrightsville River Valley Landscapes and Pools, said he did not employ visa workers, but was so shorthanded that he has been turning away jobs.

Groff said he has considered the program in the past because of labor shortages and is coming close to "weighing out whether we need to go that route."

"We haven't been in as dire need of help as we are now," Groff said.

Groff said his offer of $18 to $25 an hour for some workers has not been able to attract job seekers.

Still, he said, with the backlog of jobs his business has scheduled -- his crews already are tied up until August -- the costs of using H-2A workers "would be covered fairly quickly."

"We turn down a lot of work because we can't get employees," he said.

Sheely said the labor shortage is increasing yearly as the baby boom generation retires and younger workers move away from agricultural jobs.

Haas said he has offered the picking jobs to local teens. He said few sign on.

"Who wants to be picking peaches in 80-, 90-degree weather when your friends are going to the shore?" he asked.