When the federal government shut down for 16 days, it affected parts of the economy that aren’t as immediately apparent as zoos and national parks. One of these is the harvesting of Florida produce.
Florida growers and other agricultural employers who cannot find domestic workers to harvest their crops turn to the H-2A visa program to find a legal foreign work force. The program was created to allow employers to bring non-citizens into the country for temporary or seasonal agricultural work. At best, the H-2A system is a confusing labyrinth growers must navigate with no guarantee that their needs will be met. The grower may not correctly estimate the number of workers that will be needed to plant and harvest a crop because of unforeseen weather events and other disruptions. It’s also expensive and time-consuming. But when it works, employers can assume they will have a legal workforce to get their crops to market.
When the government shuts down, it throws a wrench into an already shaky machine.
In this case, the wrench was thrown in Chicago.
An employer’s H-2A visa applications first go to Workforce Florida, the state employment agency. After state approval, applications are sent to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Foreign Labor Certification in Chicago. After that office certifies the applications, they go to the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Service in California. Finally, the visa approvals head to individual embassies where the workers must be interviewed. The problem during the shutdown was that the Office of Foreign Labor Certification in Chicago was closed because its employees were deemed “non-essential” by the federal government.
Applications sat in stacks as the process came to a halt. Mike Carlton, FFVA’s director of labor relations, said at least 25 Florida petitions representing visas for about 3,000 temporary workers were dead in the water in Chicago. The likelihood was that workers that were needed to pick crops would not arrive in time for the beginning of the harvest.
During the shutdown, FFVA and lawmakers, as well as other agricultural groups, joined forces to ask the Department of Labor, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service and the State Department to declare the processing of H-2A applications as “essential,” based on the notion that providing food to Americans is a high priority. In addition, security issues could arise if a threat to the U.S. food supply developed.
Before those departments could act on that request, the shutdown ended. FFVA immediately got to work to address the backlog, urging the Secretary of Labor and Secretary of State to hire additional staff to process the glut of applications. They also suggested that the State Department create a “frequent worker program” for workers who had been cleared through the H-2A program in previous years.
Carlton said it’s not clear how long it will take for the H-2A applications to clear the process. “It will depend on how dedicated the three agencies that are responsible for the program are in ensuring the growers get their workers in a timely manner. As of now, there is nothing to indicate we will be back to normal at all this year,” Carlton said. “Workers are going to be late, and it remains to be seen how much of a negative impact that will have on the harvest in Florida.”
One employer affected by the backlog of applications is Paul Meador, an FFVA member and vice president of Everglades Harvesting & Hauling Inc.
“We needed our labor here Nov. 1, and here we are in the first week in November and we just now received our certification from Chicago,” he said on Nov. 4. “We’re still waiting to get authorization through Homeland Security. Then we still have to register and get [visa interview] appointments from the consulate, so we’re at least a couple of weeks from being able to get our labor here. It’s very disappointing.”
Meador started harvesting specialty peppers Nov. 2 with a very limited number of workers his team was able to put together. “We’re not able to get everything done. We’re already two days behind. Each day we’re going to get a little more behind. Vegetables just don’t wait.”
Florida citrus growers also have H-2A applications waiting to be approved.
When asked if the delay in getting workers could affect prices and availability of the crops dependent on H-2A labor, Carlton said, “Once again, that depends on the level of agency dedication to the task of processing the applications.”
Meador says if immigration reform moves forward and it includes a guest-worker program, growers will need to have more flexibility than they have now. “We have to get labor here in a timely manner and without the constraints that the Department of Labor demands today,” he said. “We just don’t necessarily know, for example, 90 days in advance when our crop is going to be ready. Sometimes we don’t even know what we’re going to plant 120 days in advance. It makes it very difficult under the current set of circumstances to operate.”