Carlos Castañeda of Castañeda & Sons talks about the H2A program.
“The H2A program is the only program the United States has to bring in— legally — agricultural workers. It’s a very important program here in California,” said Jeanne Malitz, an attorney who specializes in immigration law, as she addressed wine grape growers at the Unified Wine & Grape Expo.
California’s H2A workforce grew 28% in 2017 from the year before, and the state has risen into the top five states using that type of immigrant labor, she said.
“These numbers reflect the size of the program now, the growth in California,” Malitz said.
“The program is designed to always protect domestic workers to the extent that there are any left in agriculture,” she told wine grape growers, many of whom have a hard time finding labor.
Beyond needing to avoid displacing domestic workers, Malitz said the program is designed so that domestic workers can’t lose out on any benefits offered to H2A workers--for instance, if housing is offered for the immigrant workers, it is also offered for U.S. workers with a long commute.
“It is said, ‘You’re just trying to bring in cheap labor’ ... well, this is not cheap,” Malitz said.
Not only is a minimum wage for the workers set each year, but if farmers want to participate in the program to get badly-needed labor, they must work with several state and federal agencies, and start planning six months or a year ahead of time.
H-2A requirements state the employers must:
- recruit U.S. Workers
- provide free housing
- provide transportation
- pay required wage
- provide meals or
The first part means that before farms can hired H2A workers, they must advertise for domestic workers.
For Steve Dutton of Dutton Ranch and Dutton Goldfield Winery in the Russian River Valley, that means spending $2,500 a year on newspaper ads trying to recruit workers.
“As we’re preparing for our need to bring the workers here, we advertise in four states in different newspapers, a description of the job, what we’re going to pay, what harvest will look like, and that we provide transportation,” Dutton said. “This is our 10th year and we’re about to start our 11th year. In all the last five years we haven’t had one U.S. referral for these jobs.”
“Wow,” said someone in the audience.
“Yeah, that’s what I say, ‘Wow,’” Dutton replied.
Malitz said the law requires advertising the jobs in two newspapers in the primary state, as well as papers in three other states.
“You’re advertising in neighboring states where you don’t have any labor either,” Malitz said. “There’s such a labor shortage.”
Even when U.S. workers do reply, they rarely stay on the job a whole season, Malitz said.
One client of hers in Yuba gets about 200 responses to its ads for U.S. workers, around 50 people show up, 20 remain in the job after a couple weeks, and on average one worker may last the whole season, she said.
Carlos Castañeda of Castañeda & Sons advised growers who may want to use the program to start small so they can learn the ropes of applying, recruiting workers, and integrating them with their U.S. workforce in a harmonious way.
Castañeda’s workers helped train the temporary H2A workers, he said, because they knew that they were a supplementary workforce, not a replacement for year-round workers.
“Our domestic labor force gave such a warm reception because they no longer had to harvest,” he said.
The panel agreed that it’s not a simple path for the orchards and vineyards who use H2A labor, from getting workers across the border, to then setting them up with housing that meets standards and doesn’t set up clashes with neighbors.
But the growers do it because they need the help. And, the relationship they build with foreign workers is good for both sides.
“We started 10 years ago very small, with 11 guys,” Dutton said. “We’re now up to where we’re bringing 85 guys. Guys are bringing their extended family or a brother, and what we’re seeing is these guys are policing themselves…they want to protect the program so they want to make sure they bring up guys who respect the job.”
Those workers earnings make real changes in their hometowns in Mexico, said Castañeda, who sees visible changes in quality of life over the years in his recruiting trips (see photo below).
“When you see a place like this where four or five people are living in a garden shack and you visit a year later and there’s something like that in one year, it’s amazing,” Castañeda said. “It’s a really gratifying to see some of the changes.”