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Push for guest worker program revived

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Posted on November 30, 2009 |
By Kathryn Flagg



ADDISON COUNTY — Though the flurry of news and rumors regarding the federal government’s employment record audits in mid-November has died down, farmers and migrant workers alike are still fretting about what the immigration sweep could mean on Vermont dairy farms.

And, for some Addison County farmers and migrant workers advocates, the I-9 audit — meant to suss out employers shirking immigration laws — has spurred a renewed push for a guest workers program to legally supply dairy farmers with a source of foreign labor.

“The stress for us is, ‘Where is that next employee going to come from?’” said one Addison County farmer, who asked his name be withheld to protect him from being targeted by immigration officials. “Somebody’s got to do the work.”

As many as 2,000 foreign workers, many from Mexico, live in Vermont and work on dairy farms. Migrant worker advocates estimate that as many as 500 of these migrant laborers are employed in Addison County. Many of those Mexican dairy laborers have been prosecuted for entering the country without proper documentation or overstaying their visas.

Four or five farms in the state were issued subpoenas for employment records earlier this month, though initial reports about the audits placed that number much higher. The audits came from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which rolled the subpoenas into the largest nationwide I-9 audit in the country’s history.

FOREIGN LABOR

For the Addison County farmer, the I-9 audits came as a wake up call, as they did for many other employers.

“I think farmers are going to make sure that their I-9s are all in order,” said Cheryl Connor, a co-convener of the Addison County Migrant Workers Coalition. Though farmers have done so in the past, she said that those records have from time to time fallen out of date.

In the case of the unnamed Addison County farmer, he hadn’t heard of the I-9 forms before, let alone made sure his employees were filling out the required forms.

“I was kind of dumbfounded,” he said. “That’s when I went online and printed a bunch of (the form) off and handed them out to my employees.”

The farmer has two full-time employees — one from Mexico, the other a Vermonter — as well as a few part-time Vermont farmhands.

Employers are required to have on file I-9 forms for every employee, regardless of the employee’s nationality. The ICE audits targeted employers who ICE officials said they suspected of breaking immigration laws by knowingly employing workers not qualified to work in the United States.

Paperwork aside, the local farmer said he’s experienced the risks of employing migrant laborers. He was pulled over by a sheriff two or three years ago while driving three Hispanic workers to Wal-Mart. The farmer handed the sheriff the workers’ paperwork, but said the sheriff just laughed.

The officer took the Hispanic men out of the car, and the farmer never saw them again. A few months later the men sent addresses where the farmer could send their money and belongings.

“They take them, and they’re gone,” he said. “It was like no experience I’d ever imagined before. I had social security cards, I had work visa cards, I had it all, and it didn’t matter.”

The farmer said he would employ more Americans on his farm if he could, but he can’t find workers willing to put in the long hours milking cows.

“It would be great to find an American that would be willing to work seven days a week,” he said. “People need to remember when they sit down to eat that Thanksgiving dinner how many people are milking cows.”

At this farmer’s barn, every employee works holidays so that no one person gets stuck working long hours on days like Christmas or Thanksgiving.

Occasionally, the farmer said, he finds domestic labor who doesn’t mind those long hours. He’s hiring a new full-time employee in January.

“It doesn’t bother him to work Thanksgiving and Christmas, and it doesn’t bother me,” the farmer said. “There are not enough of those people out there right now. Everybody wants their weekends. Everybody wants their holidays off.”

Even in tough times, when unemployment in parts of the state hit 10 percent, the farmer said it’s difficult, if not impossible, to find domestic laborers to fill positions on dairy farms. Employing migrant workers is not about cheap labor, the farmer said. It’s about dependable labor.

GUEST WORKER PROGRAMS

As the hubbub about the audits has died down, Connor said she and other migrant workers advocates are lobbying for better employment programs for dairy farmers.

The migrant workers coalition has contacted Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with the hopes for reforming the guest worker programs already on the books.

“We’re just watching the situation and keeping our eyes to the front,” Connor said. “We’re being as active as we can.”

The coalition heard good news just more than a week ago, when Sanders — who had previously opposed guest worker programs — changed his position.

Guest worker programs for agricultural purposes are already in place, though the seasonal restrictions on these programs mean they’re not well suited to dairy farmers, who milk cows year round. However, other area farmers — including orchardists — are able to tap into the guest worker program to bring foreigners into the country on temporary H-2A visas to take on seasonal positions, like picking apples.

Andrea Ochs, who manages an orchard in Orwell along with her husband, Peter, said they have had a good experience so far with the program. But Ochs acknowledged that the program, as it stands now, isn’t feasible for many farms, including dairies.

“You can’t milk cows 10 months out of the year,” said Ochs, referring to the length of the maximum stay for a worker on an H-2A visa.

Ochs said she’s seen several different versions of the federal “AgJOBS” — or Agriculture Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act — legislation come and go, but that the push for revising the H-2A program always seems to get shoved aside.

For the Ochs family orchard, though, the program allows the farmers to sponsor dozens of employees from Jamaica every year for the apple harvest, their busiest time of the year. This year, the Ochses hired 30 Jamaicans to work on their farm. Around two-thirds of those workers left after the apple harvest, and 11 will stay on until March to help with packing, construction and other farm work.

“For us, we don’t need people year round,” she said. “We do have some down time where there’s just enough for the family to do. It works for us.”

The H-2A program comes with its fair share of hurdles for employers. The Ochses have to prove that there isn’t a sufficient U.S. workforce to handle their business. They’re required to advertise for positions on their orchard in newspapers in four different states.

Then, once they qualify to participate in the guest workers program, they have to meet certain requirements. The Ochses must pay their foreign workers a government-mandated wage — this year that amount was $9.57 an hour — and they have to pay for their employees’ transportation to and from their native country.

But it’s a small price to pay for a guaranteed supply of workers.

“We would be lost without them,” Ochs said.

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