Buy local, but do it without any skilled labor or help from the government
Here’s the ugly side of farming – the government. Surprised?
As if farming wasn’t complicated enough, dependent on the weather, working long hours, and sometimes doing things that are really not that appealing, we also struggle with hiring labor. Many of you have followed our conversations about the guest worker program..but it’s just getting worse.
Please keep reading – we can’t fix anything if no one knows what is going on.
If you are new to this conversation, here is a synopsis: More than 20 years ago Glenn decided to get into the guest worker program, or H2A program. It is a legal course for hiring foreign labor to fill seasonal jobs (there are some other programs for other businesses outside agriculture, but I cannot speak to that). Glenn’s decision to use this program was based on a need to hire competent people who would come work, and do work no one else wanted to do. Yes, we have our share of teenagers – but that, at best, only works while school is out, most of the kids can’t drive and our local agencies have put in so many restrictions, for instance, we can’t have them in the fields before 7am -so when will we harvest your corn to get to the farmer’s market?
How does it work?
The employer fills out a job order and files it with what is now Division of Career Services DCS (state) and Department of Labor DOL(fed) 60 days before the date of need. Both of these agencies review the application and decide whether to grant clearance for your foreign workers. Meanwhile, the job is posted in all the DCS offices and we are required to advertise the job in the local town paper, as well as, Puerto Rico, Pennsylvania and New York. And how are these considered “local”? Both the agencies have to grant clearance before Immigration will give the workers a temporary visa. Meanwhile, the housing is inspected ( by the way, my own house where we live wouldn’t pass inspection 😉 and we agree to meet any conditions set by DCS and DOL – like pay the prevailing wage set by DOL.
So, back to the beginning, the first year Merrick and Tilbert came up from Jamaica they kept busy, worked hard (almost as hard as Glenn;) and became a necessary part of the farm. All these years later, Merrick and Tilbert have not only become integral to the farm, but our family. Our H2A workforce has grown to 10 and our farm has expanded because we know we can get the work done. These men are trained here and know how to do every job on the farm – from plowing, welding and laying plastic to suckering tomatoes and bundling arugula. It is not something you just walk into, and it is demeaning to the position to say it is unskilled.
This year, the DOL, after holding up all the H2A workers for over a month, now is requiring us to hire every single person who applies for a job, as long as we have one H2A worker here. Let me rephrase that, as long as we have one Jamaican man here (that has been working here for 20 years), we HAVE to hire every single referral from the DOL says so—unless we withdraw from the program, which would mean terminating the valued, Jamaican worker. I can’t decide if this is racist, disconnected or just stupid. We have been pushed into a corner. If we bring back our valued, trained, experienced workers, whom we know and trust, all whom have built relationships with us and each other, we will be forced to add all these additional workers to meet some arbitrary requirement set up by someone in an office somewhere. This will add a huge financial burden as well as numerous logistical problems.
Let me add, we hire local folks who apply for jobs – equal to the number of H2A workers we have employed. We always seek local workers, we have many valued local, workers who have been with us year after year. But we value our H2A, Jamaican workers and want to keep them. The government created the H2A program. We signed on over twenty years ago. It has been working for us—and for the workers. It has allowed us to do what we love, preserve our land, and bring fresh, healthful food to our community. It has given long-term, reliable income to hard-working, dedicated people. Why are they changing the rules and jeopardizing the livelihood of so many?
Already the fallout begins. We are hearing of farms all over New England announcing that they are done. Every employer knows you cannot replace your trained workers with just anyone and expect the work to get done correctly and efficiently. I am so afraid that the bureauocrats will wake up too late – after we have lost many farms in the state who depend on this workforce.
And has anyone stopped to ask the men who have held these jobs for so many years how they feel. Tilbert has put all his girls through college working here, what happens to him and all the others if this job is taken away. Where are the human rights considerations for these men, men who have come into our system legally for years and years? Clearly we, the employer, have no say over who we hire.
We are taking this matter to our Congress people and Commissioner. Please try to inform yourselves about this regulation that may crush farming in the Northeast. Please feel free to come out to the farm and talk to the men who are already here and may have to be sent home (and are you aware of the situation in Jamaica?). We are planning to challenge this in court and could use a referral to a firm that can take on the DOL.
Please contact me or forward this to anyone you think can help.
Please call or email your congress people to let them know you care about local farms and local food. With all that is going on with the budget these days, this is not a number one concern – and many don’t even know about it. Suggested letter and key points on labor letters page.
There have been many efforts to overhaul the Guest Worker Program, but perhaps we could start by grandfathering in anyone who has worked here for a few years already and subject only new hires to their unrealistic and disconnected regulations and interpretations.
We’ll see all of you through this year, but we cannot farm without our skilled labor, so who knows what next year will bring.