Labor and the H2A program at Stillman’s Farm

I tend not to blog about anything other that food, farm life and wildlife.  As a business owner, I avoid political conversations for obvious reasons and because I love that we can get together about recipes and all-things-farming. Food is a great uniter! Anyway, the following commentary is NOT political, but factual. HOWEVER, it is about illegal immigrants, the H2A program, and the farm labor practices of Stillman’s Farm. If any of those topics are likely to offend, read no further.

Stillman staff with Senator Warren at BPM.

This week I received a magazine that I guess would be considered a trade rag for aspiring or neophyte farmers. Mainly it features articles about small farms or back yard gardeners, their experiences and advice. I’m not sure why I get the magazine, I did not subscribe to it and if it was a gift, no one has taken credit. In spite of it not being informative or technical enough to be considered a professional farming magazine, I still like skimming through for the nice pictures, recipes, and other anecdotal information.

Not so this time. The magazine got very political and included a piece about farm labor, painting farmers as villains exploiting their labor. The author interviewed one family headed by illegal immigrants, describing their experiences working at farms around the country. That unto itself would have been compelling and informative, but it became clear the author had an agenda and had drawn conclusions well in advance of actually researching or writing the article.

The family describes being mistreated, living in crummy conditions, sometimes the poor housing was provided by the farmer and their wages were garnished to pay for it, working long hours, only to get paid piece rate, if paid at all, etc, etc, all with the constant threat of deportation looming. It is such a grim picture, it begs the question why the family would stay here. Their experiences are their own, and I am not questioning the veracity of their story, NOR am I making a judgement about their legal status.

What triggered me was the author’s factually incorrect depiction of the H2A program as some kind of enslavement. He goes on to describe it as so horrific that, of course, people would rather be here illegally, being abused and underpaid because the treatment of H2A workers is much worse. Poppycock! I don’t know where he got his information, or if he just made it up to fit his narrative. It did not even make sense!

Faith and Melbourne build his first snowman

If the topic is new to you: The H2A program enables people from over 80 countries (yes, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Ecuador, El Salvador, and on and on are on the list) to get temporary work visas specifically for farm work (H2B is the non-agricultural temporary work visa program. The H1B program grants work visas to non-immigrants for specialty jobs).  This is how it works: 70 days before the date of need (when the work begins) the employer files a job order with the Department of Labor. The DOL either approves or disapproves the request. Simultaneously, the job order goes to the Division of Career Services in MA (different names for that organization in other states). DCS posts the job description everywhere, inspects your housing, has you advertise the job in the local paper, and for us, also in a NY and PA paper (no idea why). Employers must also show proof of workman’s comp insurance. Then the employer has to document any job applicants and send a recruitment report to DCS before they will pass that info onto DOL who certifies the job order. DOL also sets the prevailing wage. Right now it is $12.64/hour.

The employer is responsible for all immigration fees, as well as all transportation fees. One little caveat, if the worker shows up, decides the job is not for them before 14 days and wants to leave,  he/she is responsible for half of the travel costs. I’ve never heard of this happening, but I guess it can.

Our only experience is with Jamaica and Mexico, so that is what I will focus on. People who want to participate in the H2A or H2B program, go to their employment office and get their name on the list. It’s kind of like an employee pool and if you fit the qualifications and you like the looks of the job, then you get the job. Employers can also request particular employees in the program, which is handy so the same employees can return to the same farm year after year (if they want). A labor contract is signed which states the start and end dates, rate of pay, where they will be housed…Interestingly, the contract guarantees the employer will provide at least 3/4 of the hours promised for at least 50% of the contract period. The onus is on the employer. Before you can travel, you have to report for a vetting interview, medical checkup, current vaccines, etc. Then the worker travels to the state they are going to, gets picked up by their farm, given an advance for food expenses the first week and brought to their housing.

As far as Jamaica is concerned, after a worker get here, he must be reimbursed for costs he incurred to obtain his work Visa. That includes the application fee and the travel and subsistence for going to the Embassy in Kingston. This year it is $265 and is given to them the first week – it’s not wages. H2A requires employers pay these fees, so if they are higher or less for Mexico this year, the employer still pays.

The workers work their contract period (think months) and then return to their homeland. If either party violates the agreement, they risk getting kicked out of the program.  It’s a pretty decent system. Unlike what the author of the article states, employers have to pay the contract worker for the percentage of the hours promised, they cannot just renege. AND If the working or living conditions are “egregious” the employer is the one who will be penalized. It is correct that a contract worker cannot actually walk away from where they are supposed to be living and working and go on walkabout, no more than Edelman can go play for the Colts tomorrow. BUT, if there is some mistreatment, the worker can go home and remains in the program for another farm contract. It is also possible to get transferred to another farm who is approved. There is ample knowledge of legal avenues if something is not OK, as all employers have to hang multilingual posters about fair labor practices, workers comp, safety…complete with contact numbers.

H2A kitchen at Stillman’s

I’m not going to go on and on about housing, one can read earlier blogs about our housing inspections for details. All employers must provide housing approved by the Department of Public Health. Everything is spelled out from how many hand-washing sinks must be available to window openings per square feet of living space. The inspectors check linens, mattresses, cooking utensils, screens, every single electrical socket (every year), every glass and plate for chips, etc. The housing also must be inspected annually by the Town Building Inspector and Fire Chief. Also, the water must be tested annually and all fire extinguishers inspected and certified. A mid-season, surprise inspection happens where they check most of the same things but also make note of how the workers are storing their food, if there are any dishes in the dish drain (because it is unsanitary to leave your clean dishes draining after you came in for lunch and are headed back out to work, hope you don’t get caught doing it ;)).

Genevieve Stillman chatting with USDA outside labor camp during Rep McGovern’s visit

The author did not use facts to support the claim that H2A was bad and I cannot think of a reason why anyone would want to discredit the program and deride the farmers who participate in the program. I might have said it was just a different means to an end (crops get planted and picked, so who cares if workers are here legally or not), but after reading the article, and knowing what is factually true about the laws surrounding the H2A program, the illegal immigrant family he interviewed does not have it nearly as well.

The author did not need to bash the legal guest worker program to make us feel compassion for the families (and the family he wrote about) who are here illegally. Their story is a sad one and their reasons for coming into the country the way they did is their own, but it is not because there is not a working program that allows people to come here, work legally while housed well and return home to their families with decent pay.

Then the author goes on to say not only are the employers villains but the consumers are villains because they want cheap food. Well, there is something to be said about the US having cheap food (compared to other countries) and many a time I have replied to consumer’s queries about pricing with, “We are trying to pay our employees a living wage.” or “These were handpicked, not by machine.” We’d like to charge more for some fruits and veggies, but we are competing with cheap food too and, sadly, there are no unions or protections for the farmers.

According to the author, it’s not all doom and gloom or constant exploitation of cheap labor, there’s a glimmer of hope: some farmers are “Food Justice Certified” or label their products as “Fair Food”. These farm employers pay their help more than minimum wage, provide worker’s compensation, and contribute to unemployment insurance. Imagine that! If he had done some honest research, he would know H2A employees are already guaranteed that and more. BTW, we would do that even if it was not mandated… we provide it for all our local, non-H2A workers too. Again, the program is nothing he states, nor has it been for the 25 years we have depended on it for our awesome help from Jamaica.

planting tomatoes with the waterwheel planter

What is true in his article: there are not enough Americans who want to or will perform farm jobs. It would be great to streamline the H2A program so it was more accessible for prospective employers and employees. It would also be nice for farmers to have a way to petition for a visa or green card on behalf of employees who may not have legal status…just a thought.

Meanwhile, Stillman’s will continue consciously growing.

Conscientiously Grown® – Stillman’s family producing amazing produce while doing our best for the land, the crops, the wildlife, our family, your family, AND our employees.