Facing a shrinking pool of farm labor in the Trump era, some citrus growers in the San Joaquin Valley have turned to a labor contractor who brings in farmworkers from Mexico under a temporary agricultural worker program.
Leaders in agriculture acknowledge that the program makes the migrant workers legal under federal law, but they say it won’t create a big enough workforce.
Critics say the temporary agricultural worker visa program, called H-2A, could result in the abuses workers faced under the old bracero program. And it might not matter in the long run, since there likely will be fewer migrant workers coming to the U.S. from Mexico.
Use of H-2A labor is not widespread, but it is growing. More foreign agricultural workers are coming into California under the program and it’s likely that more will be seen in the Valley.
Since February, about 120 Mexican laborers have been harvesting oranges in groves owned by growers affiliated with Porterville Citrus packinghouse.
Every day except Sunday or rainy days, they work eight hours a day for $12.57 an hour.
“It’s working well,” said Jim Phillips, general manager at Porterville Citrus. “It’s kind of a pilot program.”
Porterville Citrus might try it again next year if the costs to the growers are not too high, he said.
Other citrus farmers are watching the experiment to see if it could work for them.
“There’s a lot of eyeballs on what they are doing,” said farmer Thomas Wollenman of Exeter, noting that initial reports are positive.
It’s working well. It’s kind of a pilot program.
Jim Phillips, Porterville Citrus
Finding enough farmworkers during peak harvest times has become more difficult for farmers in recent years, and rhetoric by the Trump administration about illegal immigration and border walls is causing some farmers to worry that farmworkers might not show up this year for fear of being arrested in a roundup by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
“It’s obviously a concern,” said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. “We need a labor force.”
But H-2A is not the answer to agriculture’s farm labor needs, he said.
What’s needed is immigration reform, he said.
“We need a replacement for H-2A,” he said. “This is an issue on the national scale. We haven’t seen a fix for 30 years.”
Under the visa program, an employer can bring in foreign agricultural workers if certain criteria are met.
The employer must provide transportation to and from the country of origin, free housing, demonstrate a lack of domestic agricultural labor for hire, and pay a high-enough wage – called the adverse effect wage rate – not to undercut the local labor market.
Temporary workers can be in the United States for up to one year and cannot go looking for work elsewhere. They don’t have to pay income or Social Security taxes.
Critics such as Farmworker Justice say the program drives down wages and leaves both foreign and native workers open to abuses by employers, such as wage theft, that farmworkers suffered during the era of the bracero guest worker program that ended in 1964.
California Rural Legal Assistance has been monitoring the H-2A program for several years, said Cynthia Rice, director of litigation for the nonprofit group.
“What we’re seeing is a lot of misrepresentation,” she said. “We see a lot of violations of the California labor code.”
Foreign workers are told they’ll make more money than they actually do, are frequently not paid for all work-related time, get their pay docked for expenses the employer is supposed to cover, and sometimes don’t get required rest and lunch periods, she said.
“The H-2A program is not a panacea, it’s not even a good short-term solution,” she said. “Some type of comprehensive immigration reform is needed.”
But there’s no question that more foreign farm labor has been coming to California under the program. Statistics from the Department of Labor show the number has grown from 1,598 temporary foreign farmworkers six years ago to 8,591 in 2015.
Farmers say they don’t use the program because of costs such as housing, paperwork and the risk that applications will be rejected and leave them in the lurch.
The complicated process means it cannot come close to meeting agriculture’s labor needs, said Bryan Little, director of human resources policy at the California Farm Bureau Federation.
“There are 2.6 million farmworkers nationwide and about 200,000 are H-2A,” he said. Florida, Georgia and North Carolina are the top three states where it’s used, followed by California and Washington.
It’s too soon to say if a major shortage of farm labor will occur this year, or what effect the Trump administration’s actions will have on the supply of farm labor, he said.
The temporary workers in Porterville were hired through Fresh Harvest, a labor contractor from the Imperial Valley that goes to Mexico to recruit workers and undertakes the paperwork required by the H-2A program.
Anecdotally, we hear from our members that there is a 20 to 30 percent shortage of available farmworkers.
Jason Resnick, Western Growers
Steve Scaroni owns the company and is a third generation farmer who got into labor contracting to meet the needs of the family’s fresh vegetable farming operation. Fresh Harvest, a division of the Scaroni Family of Companies, is the third-largest employer of foreign farm labor in the United States.
For many years, Scaroni has brought Mexican farmworkers to the Salinas Valley and has supplied laborers to harvest field crops around Huron and Firebaugh.
Supplying foreign workers to the Valley’s citrus belt is new for his company, he said.
“We think the demand will increase in citrus,” he said.
The typical farmworker from Mexico hired by Fresh Harvest is age 20 to 40, he said.
“They are here to work” because the money is good compared to Mexico, he said. “These guys work hard. They’re very eager.”
Americans typically do not apply for farm labor jobs, but that is not surprising, he said. Worldwide, farm labor tends to be done by migrant workers, he said: “It’s not just a USA phenomenon.”
The crew is staying at a motel in Porterville. Housing is free but workers pay for their own meals. A food truck comes to the orange groves and the motel.
Workers can come and go as they wish in their free time, but Fresh Harvest has a no-alcohol and no-drugs policy, although they can go out for a beer as long as they don’t come back intoxicated, Scaroni said.
“They’re not slaves,” he said.
On a recent weekday, about two dozen workers took a Fresh Harvest bus from Porterville to a citrus grove west of Cutler. Working quickly, they loaded bin after bin with fresh-picked oranges.
When the food truck showed up for lunch, they put away their ladders as it started to rain. After downing tacos, tortas and enchiladas from the food truck, the rain subsided and the workers grabbed their ladders and went back into the grove.
Despite his success with Fresh Harvest, Scaroni said, agriculture needs comprehensive immigration reform to deal with the problem of a declining labor pool but “that’s two or three years away.”
These guys work hard. They’re very eager.
Steve Scaroni, Fresh Harvest
The trend of fewer farmworkers coming north from Mexico during harvest season is irreversible, said agricultural economist J. Edward Taylor, a professor at the University of California, Davis.
That’s because the economy in Mexico is improving, he said.
And as educational levels increase and birth rates decrease in Mexico, fewer Mexicans will want farm jobs in the United States, he said.
“Farmers will have to adjust to a new world of labor scarcity,” he said. “The U.S. farm labor supply will continue to shrink because most hired farmworkers are from Mexico, and fewer Mexicans are growing up to be farmworkers.”
Additionally, older farmworkers are aging out of the agricultural labor force, further reducing the available pool.
As a result, farm wages are gradually rising and labor shortages are likely during the peak of harvest seasons, he said.
It’s hard to know how great the shortage of farm labor really is, said Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel of Western Growers.
“Anecdotally, we hear from our members that there is a 20 to 30 percent shortage of available farmworkers.”
Even more difficult to prove is what effect the fear of being arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement is having on farmworkers already here.
It is estimated that 80 percent of seasonal farm workers in California are unable to provide documentation showing they are legal workers, said Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League, an advocacy group for farmers.
“We’ve got to get those workers here legalized,” he said. Still, “there should be no shortage of farm labor this year.”