Farmers struggle with visa program

VERMONT — On a gray May morning in Monkton, Norma Norris and Denzel Rankine were hard at work planting tomatoes, watering seedlings in the greenhouse and painting tables in preparation for the upcoming summer season.
Rankine, 48, comes to Norris Berry Farm from his home in Jamaica for six months each year through the federal H2A guest worker program, arriving in mid-April and staying until the end of the season in the fall.
“He’s been here since I started (using the H2A program) in 1999 — he knows the whole farm,” said Norris, who usually hires between one and two H2A employees each year. “Jamaican help is really the backbone of the farm.”
But Norris agrees with others who use the program: In recent years, it’s become increasingly problematic for employers to navigate the federal requirements for entry into the H2A program.
“It’s become more difficult, with all of the regulations,” said Norris.
Still, Chris LaDuke of the Vermont Department of Labor said 41 employers statewide applied to the program last year, and that the department received 57 job orders (some employers apply two to three times for workers during different periods of time) for a total of 403 workers requested; not all of those applications were necessarily successful. Twenty-two of those applications for workers were in Addison County, for a total of 187 laborers.
LaDuke doesn’t have a tally of foreign farm workers who actually do come into the state, but he said demand for the H2A program is fairly consistent from year to year.
Alyson Eastman of Book-Ends Associates in Orwell, who helps farmers negotiate the application process, said many of the larger apple orchards and poultry farms in the state rely on the program for their labor needs, as do many fruit and vegetable growers.
Eastman said the process of hiring an H2A worker begins about 75 days before a job’s start date, with various deadlines to file paperwork with the Vermont Department of Labor, the federal Department of Labor and United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS). Employers must also advertise the job to American workers through unemployment offices and newspapers in Vermont, Massachusetts, New York and Florida.
While the program has always required a lot of paperwork, Eastman said the labor requirements have become more stringent in the past couple of years. Previously, if an employer wanted to hire two workers through the H2A program, he or she also had to open a job up to at least two American workers until at least halfway through the employment period.
Now, said Eastman, an employer must hire any American who applies and is “willing, able and qualified” until halfway through the employment period — regardless of whether or not the applicant has any on-farm experience.
“The whole intent of the recruitment process is to ensure that the U.S. workers will be given priority for these jobs,” said LaDuke. “It’s a long, tedious process for the employers, and a very costly program.”
Norris said even with the advertising requirements, she doesn’t get many applications for the job — this, she said, is one of the reasons she and her husband turned to the H2A program back in 1999.
“We knew that we needed to have more help, and we wanted help that was reliable,” she said.
Norris said it’s hard to find American workers willing to work a job that lasts only half the year and that doesn’t come with great benefits. She’s had good luck with high school and college students, many of whom come back and work on the farm for several summers in a row, but their school schedules mean that they miss the busiest seasons: spring planting and autumn harvest.
“It does become a problem when it’s a seasonal job, because most people need a job that’s year-round,” said Norris
The additional hiring requirements aren’t the first changes that have come to H2A, and Eastman said it becomes more and more difficult to navigate the system with each new rule.
Two years ago, she said, the U.S. government decided that the Jamaican Central Labor Organization (JCLO) was operating illegally and removed it from the country. The agency had provided health insurance and support for Jamaican workers in the country, and Eastman said though H2A workers are still covered by Workman’s Comp insurance on the farm, for any external medical needs they must turn to free options like Middlebury’s Open Door Clinic.
The JCLO’s Washington office, said Eastman, was also where the notices for most Jamaican workers went when in 2010 the U.S. government asked all H2A workers to pay income tax from the years 2008 through 2010. Taxes hadn’t initially been deducted from the paychecks, and H2A workers hadn’t been charged income tax before. As a result, Eastman said most did not even know that they owed any money.
Once he found out, Rankine said it came as quite a shock.
“They said I owed them $4,000-something,” he said.
He paid up, but it was a bill he never expected to owe.
“I don’t mind paying (taxes) every week, or every month,” he said.
Now, said Eastman, most employers are wise to the tax requirements and are withholding taxes for their workers.
“It’s a never-ending nightmare with this program,” said Eastman.
The H2A issue is an important one to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a member of the immigration subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Leahy staffers said it’s a concern he hears not only from his Vermont constituents, but also from people in farming communities across the United States.
While a number of H2A reform measures have been introduced and discussed in congress in recent years — including the AgJOBS bill, which would broaden the H2A program to apply to non-seasonal dairy workers — immigration legislation is a polarized topic on the national level right now, and no reform measures have passed.
Staffers said the concern is that as H2A requirements become stricter, more farmers will turn to undocumented laborers.
Still, Leahy said he will continue fighting to improve the H2A program.
“This is a broken system in desperate need of clarity and reform, and the proof lies in the challenges facing the farmers who try to use it,” said Leahy. “The evidence is clear, our case for reform is strong, and I will keep pushing until this defective process is fixed.”
Back at Norris Berry Farm, Norma Norris expects to hire between six and eight employees this summer, including one more Jamaican worker through the H2A program. She said she won’t be abandoning the H2A program anytime soon.
“A lot of the H2A regulations are built around the fact that they want to make sure that the American has still got the opportunity to work. But there’s nobody who will work as hard as these guys,” Norris said.
Rankine has a wife and an eight-year-old daughter at home, and works half the year on his family farm there. When he enrolled in the H2A program in 1988, he would spend 11 months each year in the U.S., working on a sugarcane farm in Florida and on vegetable farms in Massachusetts and Maine.
Rankine said he looks forward to coming to the U.S. to work with Norris, who describes him as “one of the family.” Now that he has a family, though, he said it’s good to go home at the end of the season.
“It’s nice to be here for the six months, and it’s nice to go home,” said Rankine.
And Norris, for her part, said Rankine is an integral part of her farm.
“When I lost my husband eight years ago, and my daughter that same year, that was the one thing that made me realize I could keep going, was the fact that (Denzel) was going to be here,” she said. “He came and hit the ground running, and shored me up that whole year.
“He’s really got his heartbeat on the farm,” she said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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