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H-2A: The Not Cheap or Easy, But Definitely Effective, Solution to Labor Shortages

by Kathleen Willcox
March 03, 2021

 

Who can afford to make $15 an hour and live within commuting distance of Napa? And if they can, will they want to do physically demanding field labor to earn that $15?

The labor crunch across wine country is real, especially for grape-growers who need not just labor, but skilled, reliable and hard-working labor. In recent decades, the farm labor market has been transformed in this country by the H-2A program, which allows farmers to recruit seasonal agricultural workers from abroad.

By law, these workers are not permitted to take jobs away from domestic workers, so they can only be brought in after applicants prove that they have exhausted employment options at home, the offer must be for a temporary or seasonal job and they must be paid an hourly wage that is competitive. In California, that means around $14.77 an hour, while in North Carolina, the rate is about $12.67. Employers must also house and transport those workers to and from home.

As of 2019, the last year for which numbers are available, more than 200,000 workers came to the U.S., and that number is only increasing. While grapes don’t crack the top 10 list of crops or occupations (the top three are general farm workers, berries and tobacco), more and more wineries have found H-2A workers to be an essential component of their team. (H-2A workers can be brought in from several countries; anecdotally, most workers come to work in wine country from all across Mexico.)

We spoke with several wine-growers to ascertain the costs and benefits of the program, and see how deeply the pandemic has impacted the process and program. 

Costs

The first thing would-be applicants should realize, Tyler Rodrigue, CEO of Noble Vineyard Management Services in Mendocino County says, is that the application process is long, unwieldy and nonnegotiable. In other words, it’s a government program operated by bureaucrats with a series of hoops to jump through; miss one, and it’s back to square one.

The program has more than 200 rules and regulations that applicants must meet, according to a recent analysis of the program conducted by the CATO Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Four federal agencies—the Department of Labor, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the State Department and the Customs and Border Protection—monitor H-2A.

“We were dealing with an insane labor crunch, and when we learned about H2-A, it seemed like a magical solution,” Rodrigue says, noting that switching to machine harvesting where viable helped, but that much of their work still needed to be hand-done, and contractors had promised and failed to deliver timely and reliable labor more times than not. “For us, the fees weren’t as big of an issue as the application process. We had to work with consultants to make sure we had proper levels of insurance, then we had to work with groups who could identify and screen interested workers. The contract between worker and employee in this program is incredibly sophisticated. We have to guarantee a certain number of days, hours and a set hourly wage, plus safe transportation here and house to stay in. If we don’t deliver, we get fined.”

Ultimately, Rodrigue brought in one crew as a trial last year, and this year, he’s bringing in four crews of 14-16 people.

Between either building or renting housing that meets the standards the program demands, the lawyers and consultants hired to dot I’s and cross T’s, the thousands in application fees, hotel bills and airplane rides necessary to get everyone to the vineyard and everything else, it may seems like it’s more trouble than it’s worth to many.

But for Rodrigue and Martha Barra of Barra of Mendocino, with 25,000 cases in annual production and a custom crush facility, it was their best option.

“We started using H-2A four years ago, and there was a steep learning curve with the process,” she admits. “But now, we bring in about four workers every spring and another 14 for harvest. Contractors just weren’t delivering workers when they said they would, and while the program is time-consuming and expensive, the workers come in ready and excited to work and learn. We develop relationships with them, and the same workers come back year after year. The job gets done, well. And that’s what we care about.”

Benefits 

John Martini, co-owner of Anthony Road Wine Company in the Finger Lakes, concurs.

“We’ve been working with H-2A for more than a decade now, and it has been a wonderful thing for us and the two other wineries we go in on the application with,” he says. “Between the three of us, we share eight workers who rotate between our farms. They’ve been coming here for years, and they know us, and we know them. We’re learning Spanish, they’re learning English. It used to be years ago, we could bring in mothers to help out on the weekends and when their kids were in school, but now we have 95 acres under vine. These guys are outside working now in 20-degree weather, trimming vines. We give them 60 hours a week, they have a big four-bedroom house and they do a good job for us, February through October.”

While the rate of worker return to these programs appears to be high (the State Department does not release official statistics on this), the potential for abuse on both sides can’t be ignored.

But perhaps because the program is so tightly regulated, and the nature of the agreement between employee and employer is contractual with clear costs associated with breaking it, the reported rate of violations is low.

While tragic cases of abuse do occur, the Department of Labor fined just 2% of H-2A employers between 2008 and 2018. In the same time period, fewer than 20 employers had serious violations that barred them from the program, according to CATO’s investigation.

Meanwhile, Polaris reports that it received 327 complaints of human trafficking from H-2A holders between 2015 and 2017, a rate of about 0.08% of the visa-holders.

Covid-19 

The Covid-19 crisis of course, has complicated an already convoluted process, though not as much as one would think. New guidelines were issued, including proof of a negative COVID test, quarantine requirements and social distancing rules enforced at work and at worker residences.

“We’ve found that even though dollar for dollar the cost of the program may be slightly higher, and COVID definitely added a few dollars and more time to the process, that it’s well worth it,” Rodrigue says. “I’d rather have people with a professional attitude who I’ve developed a working relationship with, who are excited to be there and learn, because in the end, it makes a better product. I never have to worry about them showing up and slacking off. That peace of mind alone overrides everything.”

Wine-growers need workers who will show up every day and work hard. Workers from Mexico, where the minimum wage is $7.15 a day, offered a free ride and stay in wine country, and the opportunity to make far more than they usually earn, are more than happy to deliver.


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