KENNEDYVILLE – Bernie Kohl Jr. is pleased with the work he gets from foreign workers at Angelica Nurseries Inc., a 2,100-acre Kennedyville farm that employs as many as 130 men at a time on H2A work visas.
He said the men, mostly Mexicans, do work few Americans are interested in doing, repeatedly lifting 75-pound trees, for example. They return year after year, which saves Kohl the expense of retraining workers. And, since they are here on H2A visas, they’re legal.
He just wishes the program did not come with so many strings attached — and at such a high cost.
“The quality of the work that you get through the system is very good,” Kohl said. “But the hill keeps getting steeper.”
Kohl and other farm officials say the H2A visa program has its heart in the right place, but it is not always user-friendly.
Farmers must provide adequate housing for H2A workers, a laundry sink, access to balanced meals and transportation to and from the workers’ homeland. They must show they have made every effort to hire Americans first, and they must pay H2A workers an “adverse-effect wage,” set by the Department of Labor to make sure the program does not undercut U.S. workers.
The current adverse-effect rate is $8.48 an hour, $3.33 higher than minimum wage. Farmers in the H2A program have to hire any American who shows up and asks for a job, paying him the adverse-effect rate while continuing to pay the foreign worker’s contract.
But the rules are needed to make sure workers are provided for and not neglected during their stay, said Linda Sherman, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. She said the department, which inspects housing for H2A applicants, has seen employers try to pass off corn cribs with a drain in the floor as housing.
“We want workers to be safe and employed,” Sherman said.
And farmers, despite their grumbling, said they have little choice, without running the risk of breaking the law.
“There are virtually no Americans that will actually take these jobs, and of the few that would take them there are virtually none that would stay,” said Libby Whitley, president of Mid-Atlantic Solutions. Her firm helps farmers through the H2A process.
But they still grumble.
Bill Gerweck, manager of Winbak Farms, said the wage requirements “penalize you for using foreign labor,” and lead the rest of the staff to expect higher wages. Winbak Farms, a Chesapeake City racehorse breeder, has 32 H2A workers this season, its third year in the program.
“The government makes it hard to do. If we didn’t want to do it right,” or legally, Gerweck said, “it’d be less expensive.”
Whitley said that while H2A is good for the worker, the requirements on employers are “heinous.”
“The H2A program is the Cadillac of farm-labor programs,” she said. “I believe the H2A should function like the H2B with the same rates for any worker.”
The H2B program offers seasonal visas for non-agricultural workers, is less regulated, requires less paperwork, and has grown substantially over the past 10 years. But it is also capped at 66,000 workers a year — a cap that is quickly reached, leaving Maryland seafood processors and resort operators in the lurch this year.
By contrast, there is no cap on the number of H2A workers who can be in the country. There were 624 such workers in Maryland this year, Sherman said.
Whitley said the program is a “nightmare scenario of regulatory requirements,” where the farmer is “micro-managed.”
But Kohl and Gerweck said that after they ran into problems with foreign workers who had falsified documents, they decided the cost of building housing, hiring staff for the barracks, providing transportation and paying legal fees for the H2A program was worth it.
Kohl said meals cost him about $20,000 a year, even after charging workers $8 a day for their three meals. Gerweck said it cost him about $500,000 to build and furnish a dorm for his workers.
But they also understand the benefit of well-fed and well-housed workers, who can typically work 55 hours a week. And they say they provide more than the bare minimum.
Both farms have a cleared field with painted lines and a goal where workers can play soccer after work or on weekends. The farms provide transportation to church and shopping centers, and access to healthcare. The number of Spanish-speaking workers at Angelica has led a local church to offer Mass in Spanish, and a priest makes house calls at Winbak.
The red tape does not get any easier, Kohl said. Employers must reapply every year for H2A workers and go through inspections. Large farms that maintain a workforce through most of the year are perpetually filling out forms and estimating how many workers they will need three months down the road.
“We have to do a lot of guess work as to what our needs are going to be,” said Ron Jayne of Angelica.
And Jayne said farms have the burden of “dealing with Mother Nature”: If the weather is bad, they may have to put workers on hold, which can be costly.
Both Kohl and Gerweck said they do not understand how most farms could operate legally without H2A workers, since Americans do not seek those jobs anymore. Kohl said that he only gets five to 10 U.S.-legal workers inquiring about an H2A work order, and maybe four stay.
But Whitley, who said “the market will tell you when a program is working well,” sees room for improvement.
“A program that has been used since the 1950s and is no bigger today,” she said, shows that “the H2A works for those only with no other option.”
-30- CNS 04-27-05