SALEM, Ohio – Paco is from León, Mexico, but spends most of the year on an Ohio farm – away from his wife, away from his two young sons, away from his home.
He spends days pruning and planting trees. He spends nights playing in his band, Los Amigos.
He lives in a furnished four-bedroom apartment above the farm’s market with three other Mexican workers, and drives to town in the farm’s blue van on the weekends. He makes flautas, or tortillas, for almost every meal.
The 36-year-old crops his dark beard close to his tawny cheeks, smiles a lot and likes Paco better than his real name, Francisco.
He calls his family twice a week using a prepaid phone card and tells them he misses them. And every other week he cashes his check at a Mexican market and pays Western Union $10 to send his wages home to his wife.
It’s hard to be away from his family, his home and his life for eight or nine months a year, but it’s worth it. After working five hours at the Ohio orchard, Paco makes more money than he would make in an entire week at home.
Jay is the farmer who employs Paco.
He has a 35-acre produce operation, growing apples and strawberries.
It’s hard for Jay to find reliable help. He advertises, but long days in the hot sun and demanding physical labor don’t appeal to most job-seekers.
Years ago he hired Rogelio, a Mexican man who had a green card and worked as hard as Jay himself.
Rogelio introduced his employer to his brother and friends who needed work, too. Jay was convinced he might have a solution to his labor problems.
But these men didn’t have the green cards that would allow them to legally work in the United States.
So Jay turned to H-2A, a program through the Immigration Reform and Control Act that lets employers hire nonimmigrant workers for seasonal agricultural jobs.
This is the seventh year the men have returned to Jay’s farm.
On an April morning, Jay watches his employees work on an apple tree. It’s chilly here and it’s early, but they’re hurrying down the rows with their shears. Jay says they’re expert pruners. “I don’t know what we’d do without them,” he said.
But not everyone is as pleased with H-2A.
Some people argue it takes jobs away from Americans, others think it exploits foreign workers.
In any case, there is fear of being known as an employer who uses H-2A workers, said John Wargowsky, executive director of Mid American Ag and Hort Services Inc.
These farmers using H-2A are going to greater lengths and expenses to make sure their workers are legal, but they are scrutinized, often in the form of lawsuits, Wargowsky said.
This is why Jay asks that his real name and exact location are not used. It is also why he agreed only to allow the first names of his employees be printed. All other details about Jay and Paco are as reported to the Farm and Dairy.
At the heart of the H-2A issue is this: Farmers like Jay cannot find domestic workers willing to do these farm jobs. Picking fruit in the heat of summer and spending hours on ladders pruning trees isn’t what people want to include in their high school reunion newsletter.
“Americans simply aren’t willing to do this work,” said Sharon Hughes, executive vice president of National Council of Agricultural Employers.
But someone like Paco, who used to drive a truck in Mexico for a few dollars a day, is grateful for the work, even if it is demanding. “Very grateful,” he emphasizes.
So if both the employer and employee say good things about the program, why is only 2 percent of the country’s agricultural workforce employed through H-2A while most farmers struggle to find help?
Because of the paperwork, because of the wages, because of the rules, Hughes says. It’s just too expensive.
This is why the use of H-2A workers across the country has declined from 45,000 several years ago to 30,000 today, she said.
If farmers can’t find willing U.S. workers, and they can’t afford foreign labor, what will happen, Wargowsky asks. These farms will go out of business, U.S. production will drop and other countries will make up for it. Then the United States will be importing their products, he said.
We have to find a way to make it easier for U.S. farmers to get the labor they need, he continued. The workers are out there and willing, but the program’s price tag and flurry of paperwork stand in the way.
Papers and wages
Other immigration work programs have about 15 pages of regulations; H-2A has more than 300, Hughes said. And growers have to go through 60 steps to actually get a H-2A worker to their farm, she said.
Hiring an intermediary to handle the paperwork saves time, but can cost several thousand dollars.
And this is just the beginning of the money issues. Hiring a H-2A worker requires the kind of finances most farmers don’t have.
Farmers foot the bill for the workers’ housing, transportation, insurance and certification. And, in Ohio, they’re also required to pay at least $9 an hour – a wage some people can’t justify.
Nine dollars is Ohio’s adverse effect wage rate, and agriculture is the only sector using it, Hughes said.
This adverse effect rate calculated by the U.S. Department of Labor averages the wages of skilled and unskilled workers and comes up with an inflated number, she said.
This puts Ohio’s wage rate at $9 an hour, up 35 cents from last year. Just a dozen states are required to pay more than Ohio, with Hawaii’s $9.60 being the highest.
But it’s worth it, Jay says.
“I can pay someone minimum wage to do this job, but I can bet I will have to train them, keep watching over them and then they’ll leave anyway.”
All farmers, however, can’t afford to think this way, especially if they’re hiring a hundred H-2A workers.
Instead, Hughes and groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation think workers should be paid a prevailing wage rate that would factor in the skill and location of the job and be up to several dollars less than the current $9 wage.
Complaints don’t end with wages. Something called the “50 percent rule” is just as controversial.
One of H-2A’s conditions is farmers must recruit domestic workers. It’s designed to protect U.S. jobs, but it ends up in headaches for farmers.
“It’s overkill. It doesn’t end up in more domestic workers,” Wargowsky said.
Jay agrees. He hires his men through an intermediary who does the positive job recruitment, as it’s called, by advertising nationally in papers and on the radio.
Out of the seven years he’s used H-2A, only a handful of people responded, he said. None even stayed interested long enough for Jay to interview them.
Just because U.S. workers aren’t in the fields, however, doesn’t mean agriculture isn’t providing domestic labor opportunities.
For every worker in the field, there are three more jobs either upstream or downstream in the food industry, including distributing, processing and hauling. And Americans are the ones filling these positions, Hughes said.
A new look
No matter where people stand on the specifics of H-2A, most agree it needs revamped. A bill now in the House and Senate may be the needed makeover.
It’s called AgJOBS, which stands for Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security Act of 2003.
The bill’s biggest trigger point is “earned legalization.” After working a set amount of time in agriculture, workers already in the United States could apply for permanent resident status.
Bill opponents, however, call it “amnesty” and relate it to the 1986 amnesty granted to 2.7 million people, according to the Center for Immigration Studies.
The controversy is that many foreign workers in U.S. agriculture are not working through the H-2A program. Instead they are here illegally, using fraudulent documents to get their jobs – and they would also be able to get permanent resident status.
Hughes estimates as many as 70 percent of the agricultural workers are illegal.
H-2A offers a guarantee – a guarantee the workers are legal.
This is a peace of mind Tom Demaline doesn’t want to be without.
Prior to going through H-2A, Demaline hired migrant workers at his wholesale nursery operation in Lorain County.
He constantly worried about immigration services saying his workers’ documents were fraudulent and then taking his workforce midseason.
Even Paco said at the nursery he worked at prior to the produce farm, immigration services often deported illegal workers.
Although Demaline is now confident in his 235 H-2A workers, he knows other farmers who can’t afford the program worry whether their migrant workers are legal.
With AgJOBS’ earned legalization, other farmers would have the same peace of mind as Demaline.
But, opponents ask, why reward illegal workers? Why give them permanent resident status when they’ve been fooling employers and the federal government for years?
If it wasn’t for these workers, agriculture would be struggling, Wargowsky said.
It’s obvious the United States depends on illegal workers, he said. The system needs changed so undocumented workers can work here legally, he continued.
But it’s important AgJOBS, or any other reform program, doesn’t encourage future illegal workers, Wargowsky cautioned.
Opposition and help
Although Farm Labor Organizing Committee based in Toledo is opposed to H-2A, it supports AgJOBS and helped with the negotiations.
It includes two principles important to the group’s president, Baldemar Velasquez.
First, workers can move between employers.
Currently, H-2A workers’ conditions aren’t enforced, unscrupulous growers deny employees their fair wages, and workers can’t pick or change their employers, he said.
In addition, these H-2A workers can’t file a formal grievance without fear of retaliation or being deported, Velasquez said.
AgJOBS would also give workers the freedom to cross the border into Mexico, which Velasquez said is important to ending the human smuggling black market so prevalent in Texas and other Southern states.
But to get international workers legal status, Velasquez said they also had to sacrifice something: money.
AgJOBS would freeze the wage rate at its amount in 2002. For Ohio, that would be $8.38. Then Congress would have three years to come up with a new wage rate system.
If Congress didn’t act, the wage rate would be based on inflation with a 4 percent cap.
This still isn’t the market-based wage rate Wargowsky is looking for, but at least it recognizes the adverse effect wage rate is a problem.
AgJOBS isn’t a long-term solution and it won’t solve the labor issues in agriculture, Wargowsky said.
But it will give the H-2A time to improve while letting farmers have a legal, available workforce, he said.
By the time Paco goes home to his wife and children in León, Mexico, in November, AgJOBS’ future may be more certain.
With 56 cosponsors in the Senate and 103 in the House, Hughes hopes for a vote in May.
But in March, U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine told Ohio Farm Bureau members he doubts the legislation will get passed since it’s an election year.
With or without AgJOBS, Paco plans to make the three-day drive back to Ohio again next year and every year after. Maybe, he says, someday his sons will even work here in the United States, too.
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