Farmers told hiring foreign workers is a complicated process

After most of a day hearing about federal, state and municipal laws governing the hiring of foreign workers, Barbara Bauman of Webster felt she learned enough to start asking more questions of the appropriate agencies.

Barbara and Daniel Bauman attended the Becker Forum in Liverpool this week, a full-day forum on current agricultural topics held each year on the day before the start of the Empire State Producers Expo in Syracuse.  This year the forum focused on the federal H-2A program that allows farms to hire foreign workers for up to 10 months of the year to handle seasonal work. Anyone attending couldn’t help but come to understand that it’s a complicated process to gain and maintain the many required approvals governing foreign workers.

“I’m not sure it’s going to work for us,” Barbara Bauman said, but noted that the forum, sponsored by the NY State Horticultural Society, was helpful.

The Baumans had attended the forum hoping to find a solution for farm labor shortages they’ve been experiencing during harvest time.

“It’s not so much finding people, it’s finding people who are willing to work,” Daniel Bauman said.  At least until now, the farm has relied on local domestic workers for its labor supply.

Several of the presenters were other farmers experienced in hiring H-2A workers who said they had the same problem before turning to workers from other countries. Allison DeMarree of DeMarree Fruit Farms in Williamson, Wayne County, said without the H-2A program, “we’d have to sell the farm.”

DeMarree and others said when they advertise in local, regional and out-of-state newspapers for workers, they get little to no response from American-born workers. Sometimes people call about the ads but clearly don’t meet even the basic requirement of having worked on a farm for a minimum of three months. And few, if any, show up for an interview.

Experts in labor and agricultural law detailed the complicated process for the approximately 80 people attending, starting with housing. The H-2A program requires that employers provide adequate housing for foreign workers, but the farms have to meet county and town codes for building and occupancy. So farmers were advised to start talking with county health department representatives at least a year before building or renovating housing in order to make sure whatever was prepared met the applicable codes.

Renewing approval each year also takes substantial time and presenters warned farmers to file paperwork at the earliest date allowed rather than wait until the last allowable date. Everything should be completed and approved at least 30 days before the workers are needed or else the workers won’t be there at the critical time, experts said.

“You have to think about all the moving pieces of the agencies in order to get to where you need, which is workers on the ground,” said Melissa Buckley, a foreign labor specialist with the state Department of Labor. “H-2A could be kind of a year-round activity for the employer,” she said.

When starting the paperwork, Buckley said, “get a cup of coffee, get a snack, get a notepad because, frankly, it’s going to take a while.” She advised farmers to “make the time or hire an agent.”

Peter Russell of Russell Farms in Appleton, Niagara County, has made use of an agent for the last two years, but warned that farmers still need to exercise due diligence about the process and maintaining their housing so inspections go well.

“Nobody’s going to look after your operation better than you,” Russell said.

Despite the complexity of the laws on foreign workers, use of the H-2A program in New York has increased substantially in recent years. Buckley presented figures showing 427 employers in New York asked for foreign workers in 2016, which resulted in 6,667 foreign workers being placed. Those numbers represent an increase of 21 percent in requests and 23 percent in number of workers since 2014.

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