H-2A is “difficult to use, difficult to get everything done in a timely fashion. It’s difficult for farmers to be assured they’ll have workers where and when they need them.
“If it’s hard to bring in 60,000 workers annually now, why would anyone believe the pipeline can be made big enough, fast enough? That system is going to serve American agriculture and bring in almost 500,000 people almost overnight?”
Gasperini was dismissive of legislators claiming the problem can be solved quickly by pushing the program into overdrive. “That doesn’t pass the red-face test. That’s why I like what (Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner) Mike Strain has been saying with regard to this.”
Beating the drum for sensible reform of migrant labor regulations, Strain says hiring legal migrant workers has become an unnecessarily expensive, time-consuming process. With other state departments of agriculture’s backing, Strain has called for streamlining the visa process and reducing red tape to a minimum.
“If we’re going to continue to rely upon foreign workers, then we need an expedited system to bring them into the country, keep track of them and to make sure they return home when their work visas have expired,” said Strain earlier this year.
“In Louisiana, we employ more than 3,000 H-2B workers. We have very few illegal workers in the state – we use legal migrant workers.
“But there are a number of problems in the system. One is the current electronic system makes it very difficult for our citizens to hire the people they need. That’s particularly true of the seafood industry – things like peeling crawfish, working with alligators and processing crab. Skilled migrant workers are also prevalent in the sugar industry.
“Normally, you must get approval for a worker every year – the same tedious process every year. And it’s very costly. You’re looking at $1,000-1,500/worker to try and expedite the system. You must expedite because of all the typical delays.”
If nothing else, at least provide extended visas, says Strain. “Most of the migrant workers, 90%, come back year-after-year-after-year. So, instead of a yearly approval we propose a five-year approval. Make it like a ‘worker passport’ or whatever.
“That would save the average farmer – if he employs 15 or 20 migrant workers -- $50,000 to $75,000 over a five year period. That’s just the savings from expedited worker fees. A five-year approval process would cut down tremendously on red tape.
“Plus, the farmer would have a bit more time to get the approvals in order. It is very difficult to get the normal, legal, guest workers to their jobs. These workers are critical for a number of our industries: seafood, sugar, nurseries, forestry, vegetables, cotton gins, everywhere.”
“It’s almost as if the guest worker program is very unfriendly. Each agency says ‘well, it isn’t us making problems it’s another agency.’ Well, someone is responsible and let’s work it out.”
The regulatory tangle for migrant workers also affects the agriculture sector in ways many would never consider. Tracy Zeorian, president of the U.S. Custom Harvesters Association, has seen that up close. Zeorian, who operates a custom harvesting business with her husband, says procuring a hazmat endorsement – which allows a driver to haul materials deemed “hazardous,” including diesel – for migrant workers is impossible.
“H-2A employees aren’t eligible to even receive the hazmat endorsement,” says Zeorian, an advocate for changing fuel-hauling regulations. “So, if you have a crew of eight or 10 foreign employees, the American business owner would be the only one who could have the hazmat endorsement. He’d be the one who’d have to haul the fuel to the field every morning and would be the one hauling the tank down the road when driving from job to job.”