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January 2007, Volume 13, Number 1

H-2A, H-2B Programs

H-2A. There are three separate concepts involved in guest worker programs: certifications, visas issued and admissions. In FY05, 6,602 farm employers were certified by DOL to hire H-2A workers to fill 48,366 farm jobs; in FY04, 6,700 farm employers were certified to fill 44,619 farm jobs with H-2A workers

DHS records admissions of H-2A workers. Their number was initially reported as 7,011 in FY05 because some H-2As were classified as H-2Bs. Actual admissions are likely to be similar to the 22,141 in FY04, although in the FY205 yearbook H-2A and H-2B admissions were grouped together at 129,327 (p85).

DOS records the visas issued to H-2A workers, which totaled 31,892 in FY05, about the same as the 31,774 issued in FY04; 89 percent of the H-2A visas in FY05 went to Mexicans Table 16B).

The Ohio-based Farm Labor Organizing Committee in 2004 reached an agreement with the North Carolina Growers Association under which the then 8,000 H-2A workers brought by NCGA to the state each year would be represented by FLOC. Many of these H-2A workers are employed by farmers who raise tobacco and who grow cucumbers for Mt. Olive Pickle Company. NCGA is losing customers, as farmers complain about increased costs of obtaining H-2A workers, about $950 a worker, up from the previous $500.

FLOC, founded in 1967, won a contract with Campbell Soup in 1986 that required farmers growing tomatoes and cucumbers for Campbell in northwest Ohio to recognize FLOC as bargaining agent for their 3,100 workers. It took five years of boycott activity for FLOC, which had its 10th triennial convention in September 2006, to win contracts in North Carolina.

The number of Florida employers applying for H-2A workers has increased sharply, from 16 requesting 1,000 foreign workers in 2005 to 70 requesting 5,000 H-2A workers in 2006. The AEWR in Florida in 2006 was $8.56 an hour. However, the Orlando Sentinel on October 17, 2006 reported there were ample supplies of labor for the smaller orange harvest anticipated in 2006-07; some 30,000 to 40,000 workers are usually employed during the orange harvest.

West Coast Tomato of Palmetto reported hiring 400 year-round and 1,000 seasonal workers, and in 2006-07 applied for the first time for 35 H-2A workers.

The Los Angeles Times on November 5, 2006 profiled 250 H-2A workers hired by Sierra-Cascade Nursery of Susanville, California to trim strawberry plants for $9 an hour in preparation for later transplantation. The workers were promised six to eight weeks of work, but soon began to complain about poor food, a high productivity standard of 1,025 trims an hour, and lack of heat in the workplace and in the accommodations. Larry Memmott of Sierra-Cascade acknowledged mistakes, but says that the 50 H-2A workers represented by California Rural Legal Assistance are "bad apples," who were not experienced enough to earn the $9 an hour AEWR.

H-2B. The H-2B program allows US employers seeking workers to fill seasonal nonfarm jobs to be certified to employ foreign workers. There are 66,000 H-2B visas a year available, and "returning workers," foreigners employed as H-2B workers during any of the previous three years, do not count against the cap. US employers can apply for H-2B workers up to six months before they are needed.

The federal fiscal year begins October 1, so the Colorado ski industry got many of the H-2B visas available. As a result, the 66,000 quota is now divided into two parts: 33,000 H-2B visas are available October 1 and another 33,000 are available April 1. The 33,000 H-2B visas available for the first six months of FY07 were gone by November 28, 2006, that is, in less than two months.

Alpha Services, an Idaho tree-planting contractor, settled a suit in November 2006 that alleged it did not pay prevailing wages and transportation for its H-2B tree planters. Over 90 percent of its planters are H-2B workers, working in the southeastern states for $6 to $9 an hour and for $11 to $14 an hour in Idaho. Under the settlement, Alpha will cover the cost of transportation to the job site, and deduct it from the worker's pay.

Express Forestry Inc of Arkansas in December 2006 settled a suit by paying $220,000 in back wages to up to 300 H-2A workers employed between April 1999 and April 2005. The Southern Poverty Law Center has suits pending against two other reforestry firms, Superior Forestry Service and Eller & Sons Trees. Mary Bauer, an attorney at the law center, says that Eller's recruiters in Guatemala required those wanting to be H-2B workers to hand over deeds to their property to ensure they returned. About one million acres were reforested in the southeastern United States during the December 2004-March 2005 planting season.

Devona Walker, "State guest worker numbers up 500%," Sarasota Herald-Tribune, December 13, 2006. Lee Romney, "For some laborers, U.S. guest worker program was a bitter letdown," Los Angeles Times, November 5, 2006.

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