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Temporary workers visa program grows in western Idaho

March 24, 2018
In a Feb. 17, 2018 photo, a meal is prepared and served to H2A visa participants after a few long days of travel from Mexico to Farmway Village in Caldwell, Idaho. (Chris Bronson/The Idaho Press-Tribune via AP)
In a Feb. 17, 2018 photo, a meal is prepared and served to H2A visa participants after a few long days of travel from Mexico to Farmway Village in Caldwell, Idaho. (Chris Bronson/The Idaho Press-Tribune via AP)

CALDWELL, Idaho (AP) — On a cold Saturday afternoon in February, two dozen men wearily exited two white vans at Farmway Village in Caldwell, stretching their legs and fumbling for luggage. After a two-day drive from the Mexican border town of Nogales to the Treasure Valley, they were all likely looking forward to a hot meal, shower and rest.

Yet as soon as they exited the vans, every passenger — most in their early 20s — joined a long line, enthusiastically shaking hands and thanking their employers and the Caldwell Housing Authority staff waiting for them.

Unlike the bus that arrived in the early morning hours a few days before, almost all of these men were returning for their second year working for Central Cove Hop and Watson Agriculture in Parma and staying at Farmway Village. All are Mexican nationals working in the United States as part of the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program, which allows American companies to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary agricultural jobs. In addition to meeting stringent program requirements, H-2A employers are also required to provide their workers with transportation and housing — which is where the Caldwell Housing Authority comes in.

Before they settle into their shared dorms — home for the next several months — they eat dinner in a large group with the gathered housing authority staff. After dinner, Mike Dittenber, the housing authority executive director, and bilingual staff member Cecilia Flores conduct an orientation that Dittenber said always begins with an important message.

“I tell every group this: Regardless of what you may think, you are welcome here,” Dittenber said.

FOREIGN LABOR IN IDAHO

Idaho’s agricultural industry has suffered during the last year’s labor shortage — especially farms and businesses that rely on seasonal and temporary laborers. Many agricultural jobs require long workweeks of manual labor. Most positions are inherently temporary or seasonal, with only three- to six-month contracts. And some in the industry say raising wages doesn’t always attract the number of workers local farmers need just to fully harvest their crops.

“It is hard work, and there is a lot of exposure to the elements,” said Joel Anderson, executive director of the Snake River Farmers Association. “I would say, honestly, when you can find work in a different industry that is not as taxing — for a lot of people, that might be more appealing.”

The Snake River Farmers Association is a nonprofit and H-2A service provider based in Heyburn, Idaho, that helps agricultural employers comply with federal requirements to hire temporary workers through the H-2A program. The association has nearly 600 member employers across 13 states, with 350 members in Idaho. Anderson said there are about 15 Canyon County employers that use the H-2A program, 12 of which are members of the association.

Anderson said he’s also noticed a “tremendous” uptick in employers interested in using the H-2A program, particularly in the last two or three years. This mirrors increases in H-2A labor demand nationwide.

“We have had more inquiries this year than we have ever had,” Anderson said. “Not everybody ends up joining, because when they learn about the government aspect of it and all the requirements, some of them don’t feel comfortable.”

Those requirements — which can change year to year — include extensive documentation, worker retention, payroll and record-keeping compliance above and beyond regular employment rules.

Anderson said some of the Snake River Farmers Association’s work involves answering questions and clearing up misconceptions about the H-2A visa program. Many first-time applicants for H-2A visa workers aren’t aware that they have to pay for the in-bound transportation of their workers and provide housing, or that Idaho employers must pay all workers the state’s minimum wage for foreign, non-immigrant agricultural workers — currently $11.63. Additionally, only seasonal or temporary positions can be filled by workers from the H-2A visa program, thereby excluding dairies and other year-round producers.

The Snake River Farmers Association also doesn’t help farmers recruit foreign nationals for the positions, although other agencies do.

“At the end of the day, our goal as an association is to help producers get lawful and foreign employees if they can’t meet their needs with U.S. workers,” Anderson said.

Employers must also meet strict requirements to prove that the positions cannot or have yet to be filled by U.S. workers. According to Anderson, the employer has to keep positions available for U.S. workers through half of the contract period. If a qualified U.S. worker applies before the halfway point of the contract period, the employer is legally required to hire that worker — even if it means sending a currently employed H-2A worker back home.

“I fully agree that you should hire U.S. workers. This is a program of last resort,” Anderson said.

CONCERNS WITH H-2A USE

Irma Morin, the CEO of the Community Council of Idaho — which provides services to farmworkers and their families — expressed concern about the impact of Idaho’s growing H-2A visa program on the existing migrant and seasonal farmworker community.

“We’ve seen the reduction in migrant workers in the east of Idaho,” said Morin. “We know that it’s a result of the H-2A program and we know that’s shifted to this region now.”

Morin said the Community Council of Idaho was aware of local farmworkers moving on to other jobs like construction and manufacturing. However, she said that she and other advocates for Idaho migrant workers would be checking to ensure that local employers were doing their due diligence during the hiring process by giving priority to domestic farmworkers.

Peggy Davison, the human resources manager at J.C. Watson Company, recently started coordinating the H-2A visa process for Central Cove Hop and Watson Agriculture, a subsidiary of J.C Watson. The companies contracted with WAFLA (the Washington Farm Labor Association) to apply for and recruit their H-2A workers.

Davison waited with Caldwell Housing Authority staff when their first group of workers arrived. She said the companies had nearly every worker return from the first group of 24 they hired last year — the first time they used the H-2A program.

With high turnover the norm among the domestic agricultural workers they usually hire, having a full group of experienced workers return for a second year is incredibly valuable. Davison said the program was such a success last year that they’ve hired 48 this year, who will begin work this month.

“It’s really hard to plan your labor force day to day,” Davison said. “With H-2A, you have 48 workers, and you know you’re going to have 48 workers on your crops.”

The only “headache” that comes with hiring H-2A workers, Davison said, is finding housing. In November 2017, the Capital Press reported that southwestern Idaho was facing a shortage of housing for H-2A workers, as housing authorities like Caldwell’s struggled to keep up with the increase in foreign labor.

“It’s going to be a hot topic in the next few years,” Davison said.

ACCOUNTABILITY BY CHECKS AND BALANCES

Dittenber with the Caldwell Housing Authority doesn’t deny the obvious benefits of hosting so many H-2A foreign workers at Farmway Village. Local farmers — eager to secure housing slots for their workers — rarely make late payments. The housing authority’s participation in the program means consistent rent payments, which isn’t always a guarantee when working with so many low-income families.

Dittenber said he also sees it as an opportunity for his staff to act as ambassadors and friends to the temporary workers.

“They’re going to go home and have some kind of opinion about America,” Dittenber said. “Hopefully, their opinion about America is people treating them well.”

A Nov. 1 report by the Idaho Statesman documented abuses in the H-2A program across Idaho. Dittenber said housing workers at Farmway Village — rather than housing them with the farmers themselves — adds more “checks and balances” to a system meant to protect workers.

Dittenber said he and his staff try to make sure their residents feel comfortable approaching them about abuse and bullying, whether at work or elsewhere. Between the Caldwell Housing Authority, employers and Idaho Department of Labor inspectors, Dittenber hopes they can curb any mistreatment of guest workers in Canyon County.

“Abuse happens when too few people have control over the process,” Dittenber said. “If the H-2A program is to thrive in this community, the farmers and the Department of Labor should embrace those checks and balances.”

GOING HOME

Caldwell Housing Authority also works with employers to ensure the guest workers leave Idaho and return to their homes once their contract is up. The farmer will tell the Caldwell Housing Authority the workers’ last day of employment and schedule a move-out inspection of the workers’ apartments. Although the farmers are ultimately responsible to make sure each worker has made travel arrangements by the end of harvest, housing authority staff usually helps workers get to the transportation hub they need, whether the bus station in Nampa or the Boise Airport.

“Many of them rely on us for that, but it is something we can do,” Dittenber told the Idaho Press-Tribune in a follow-up email. “It also gives us an opportunity to say our goodbyes to a group of young men who left their homes to help on our local farms.”

In his opinion, concerns about foreign workers trying to overstay their contract were unrealistic, since most wouldn’t jeopardize their high-paying jobs and free housing. Dittenber also expressed confidence in Homeland Security’s vetting of the men who work for Canyon County employers and stay in Farmway Village.

“These people don’t just show up,” Dittenber said. “These are the best and brightest that Mexico has to offer us. They are good people.”

Flores, one of the housing authority staff members who works closely with each group as they settle into Farmway Village, agreed with Dittenber’s assessment. She said she enjoys getting to hear about their families in cities across Mexico and watching them develop real friendships in the Canyon County community. Several of the returning workers clearly felt the same friendship — when they reached Flores’ place in the receiving line after their arrival Saturday, many gave her a hug instead of a handshake.

“They say we’re here to work, we’re here to do what we need to do and go home,” Flores said. “They’re pretty neat guys. I enjoy getting to meet them.”

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Information from: Idaho Press-Tribune, http://www.idahopress.com

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