Notes on Farm Labor
Farm Business Management Update, April 2000
By Jeff Alwang
One of the main management issues that Virginia farmers will face in the next two to three years is the availability of low-cost, reliable labor. Several studies have documented the importance of migrant and seasonal farm workers to regions and the economy of the state as a whole, but farmers know first-hand that access to reliable labor is a key to success. Unfortunately (from a producers' point of view), off-farm employment opportunities have increased dramatically during the economic expansion of the 1990s, and low unemployment rates mean fewer local applicants for seasonal labor position. Two main alternative sources of labor exist: migrant farm workers and H-2A workers. Use of either alternative source of labor creates management complications, but these complications should not dissuade farmers from at least exploring such possibilities. Complications range from the need to provide housing to a possible increase in regulation by state and federal authorities. Use of the H-2A program was covered in an earlier edition of this newsletter. Application procedures for H-2A workers can be burdensome, particularly for farmers hiring a small number of workers. Information on regulations related to the hiring and employment of migrant and H-2A workers is available through the MILAW computer program produced by the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. This program is available at local cooperative extension offices and office of the Virginia Employment Commission. Farmers who are interested in hiring such workers should be aware of recent regulatory changes, programs for employment, and proposals to change federal immigration law. Some of these changes are highlighted below.
Migrant and H-2A workers need to be provided housing that is of reasonable quality. This housing must exceed minimum standards and will be inspected by the state health department. Farmers have, in the past, balked at the use of such workers because they do not have such housing. The cost, however, of providing housing to farm workers can be quite reasonable. According to the Savannah Morning News, a Georgia farmer was able to construct housing on his farm with a 30-year, 1 percent, USDA loan at a cost of $2,750 per worker or a mortgage cost of less than $100 per worker per year. USDA housing officials in Georgia confirm that the article is essentially correct. Interested persons may inquire at their local or State office of USDA's Rural Housing Service for further details about Section 514 program loans. Applications for section 514 Farm Labor Housing Loans and Section 516 Farm Labor Housing Grants for Off-Farm Housing close on June 19, 2000. Please see http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=1999_register&docid=99-32961-filed%20 for further information.
Farm workers, even migrants, are increasingly demanding higher wages. According to an AP story out of Florida in early February, hundreds of farm workers refused to pick tomatoes in a work stoppage aimed at forcing growers to negotiate higher wages. Three workers were arrested, and dozens of protesters marched in the street after dark. Workers want their pay increased from about 45¢ a bucket to 75¢, an amount they say would give them a livable wage. The protest comes in the midst of the winter harvest as tomatoes are ripening in the field.
Growers in Ohio, however, came up with an innovative solution allowing them to hire migrant workers at a lower cost to them. These growers, working with the state department of welfare, applied to use surplus welfare funds (from the federal welfare program) to compensate workers. The AP report reads as follows:
Migrant farm workers in at least one northwest Ohio county will be able to get $300 a month during the harvest season as an incentive to keep working in the state. Seneca and Huron counties have asked the state for approval of similar payments for farm workers.
Marla White of the Huron County Department of Job and Family Services said the Huron County program would be different from Sandusky County's, but the details would not be known until the state makes a decision on whether to approve it.
The payments are through a federal grant designed to keep people off welfare. They are expected to help vegetable growers compete for migrant workers with farms in the South, where the growing season is longer and the pay better.
The Ohio Department of Human Services last week approved Sandusky County's plan to pay farm workers $300 per month for four months. It will be the first time any county has given payments to farm workers.
Many farmers use farm labor contractors (FLC) to help in the hiring and management of migrant workers. Farmers are obligated to ensure that the labor contractors they use are eligible to work as farm labor contractors. Individuals may not engage in any activity as a farm labor contractor or as a farm labor contractor employee unless they hold valid certificates of registration under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. Interested parties may call 1-800-800-0235 to obtain current registration information for eligible FLC's.
This number may also be used to request a no-charge subscription to a continually updated list of persons ineligible to perform farm labor contracting activities. However, it should be noted that absence from the printed list of ineligible FLC's is not an assurance that an individual is eligible.
There have been several attempts at the federal level to introduce legislation to address perceived labor shortages in agriculture. A recent example is the Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and Security Act of 2000, filed by Representative Sanford Bishop. The bill establishes a system of registries of temporary agricultural workers to provide for a sufficient supply of such workers. It also amends the Immigration and Nationality Act to streamline procedures for the admission and extension of stay of nonimmigrant agricultural workers (H2-A workers). Interested employers should follow these pieces of legislation as they will have substantial impacts on the ability to hire workers in the future.
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