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October 2016, Volume 22, Number 4

Florida, Southeast: H-2A

Florida is the largest H-2A-using state, with almost 18,000 jobs certified in FY15. Three-fourths of Florida's oranges are picked by H-2A workers, and two-thirds of the Florida H-2A certifications went to FLCs or custom harvesters, with H-2A Complete II, Rodrigo Gutierrez-Tapia, and Temp Labor each certified for 1,000 or more workers.

Average UI-covered employment has been falling in Florida, from 93,000 to 76,000 between 2005 and 2015, when farm employment peaked at 92,000 in January. Florida accounts for six percent of average UI-covered farm employment across the US. Palm Beach county had average UI-covered farm employment of 6,400 in 2015, down from 7,900 in 2005.

In Collier county, average UI-covered farm employment fell from 6,300 in 2015 from 4,200 in 2005, and UI-covered vegetable employment fell from 4,300 in 2005 to 2,900 in 2015, that is, employment in NACIS 1121 vegetables was 70 percent of farm employment.

Total UI-covered wages were stable at $115 million in 2015, and vegetable wages stable at $74 million, but average weekly wages rose to $525 for all agriculture and $495 for vegetables, with a jump of seven percent between 2014 and 2015. Between 2005 and 2015, average weekly wages rose for all agriculture and vegetables by 50 percent, more than the statewide 35 percent increase in statewide farm wages.

The drop in average crop support employment over the past decade, down 9,000 to an average 16,400 in 2015, was larger than the drop in direct-hire crop employment, down 7,000 to 49,000. In Florida, there are three direct-hire workers for each crop support worker.

Why has H-2A employment increased in Florida as UI-covered crop employment declined? Farm employers do not have to pay UI taxes on the wages of H-2A workers, which can save them six percent in payroll taxes. Another reason for the upsurge in H-2A employment is the mobility of US farm workers. H-2A workers are "loyal" in the sense that they must stay with the US employer who brought them into the US, making them preferred to US workers who can leave before harvests are complete to earn higher wages in other crops.

Florida citrus groves (NAICS 11131) employ a declining share of UI-covered workers directly, some 3,000 in 2015, but many of the 16,400 UI-covered workers brought to farms by crop support services pick citrus. An estimated three-fourths of Florida citrus is picked by H-2A workers who are not covered by the UI system.

Florida's citrus harvest begins in November, but most H-2A workers arrive in December-January, when yields rise and there is more harvesting. By April, when the sweeter Valencia oranges favored by consumers are ready to pick, H-2A workers stay "loyal" to their employers despite the availability of other farm work offering higher wages. Growers in the past raised the piece rate for picking Valencia oranges in order to keep workers from moving to other crops, but they do not have to raise piece rates to retain H-2A workers.

Florida produced 82 million boxes of oranges in 2015-16, and the crop is projected to fall to 60-65 million boxes in 2016-17, the smallest in half a century; in 2007-08, over 150 million boxes were harvested. Florida orange production has been declining because of greening disease, a bacteria from China that arrived in Florida and blocks nutrients from entering trees, killing them within five to 10 years. Greening began in eastern Florida, near ports from which growers believe the bacteria reached the state. Citrus canker is another bacteria spread by air, especially during hurricanes.

Frozen concentrated orange juice is also losing favor with consumers, who increasingly drink fresh juice.

Less than 10 percent of Florida oranges are harvested mechanically, in part because citrus greening and canker weaken trees. The increasing share of Valencias slow mechanization, since Valencias are on the tree 14 months and shaking off ripe fruit can also remove buds for the next crop. Abscission chemicals to loosen Valencias and reduce bud drop are being developed.

Consolidated Citrus, with 26,000 acres of oranges, typically uses contractors to obtain harvesters and required contractors to use H-2A workers for the 2006-07 harvest after some Valenicas were not harvested when US workers left for higher wages in other commodities before the harvest was completed in June. Consolidated began to hire some H-2A workers directly, and built housing for 250 in the Immokalee area.

The Florida orange industry uses 90-pound boxes as a measure of fruit, even though oranges are picked into bags and dumped into tubs that hold 900 pounds. Tubs are dumped into trailers and taken to processing plants.

A similar loyalty story explains why more Florida strawberry growers are hiring H-2A workers. Florida's strawberry acreage doubled to over 12,000 acres in the past decade, but UI-covered employment in Florida strawberries rose only a third to 5,000. One reason more strawberry growers are hiring H-2A workers is to have harvesters in March, when Florida strawberry production peaks. Many growers lower piece rates because there are more strawberries, so that workers can achieve the same hourly earnings with lower per tray wages.

The acreage of Florida blueberries has tripled in the past decade to almost 6,000, half as many acres as strawberries. Florida blueberries are ready to harvest in March and, with growers obtaining high prices for their early-season blueberries, they are willing to pay high piece-rates for picking, which attracts workers away from strawberries. Hiring H-2A workers ensures that they will stay with strawberries despite higher blueberry wages.

In short, more options for US workers encouraged many Florida citrus and strawberry growers to invest in H-2A workers. The rise of H-2A workers in Florida Valencia orange groves and strawberry fields reflects a desire to have loyal workers in place during the peak harvesting season of March-April, when US workers often have other options such as blueberries that offer higher hourly earnings.

Georgia. Some 14,400 jobs were certified to be filled by H-2A workers in FY15, including 8,500 or almost 60 percent for FLCs. The largest FLCs, each with 400 or more H-2A certifications, include Emilia Alverez, Paloma Harvesting, and R&R Harvesting.

North Carolina. North Carolina had 18,000 farm jobs certified to be filled with H-2A workers in FY15. Over 11,000 of these jobs were for the North Carolina Growers Association, a joint employer with the farmers to whom it supplies H-2A workers. Another 3,300 jobs were with FLCs, including 885 for Florida-based Rodrigo Gutierrez-Tapia and 635 for the NCGA acting as an FLC.

The FLOC has a collective bargaining agreement with NCGA covering the H-2A workers brought from Mexico and employed by NCGA member farmers. The CBA required farmers to develop three-strike discipline systems before firing workers and includes a four-tier preference system for rehiring H-2A workers next season. First priority goes to H-2As deemed preferred by employers, experienced workers and relatives nominated by them. Second are active workers, who are hired in order of seniority, third are preferred workers who want to switch employers or the time they come to the US, and fourth are new workers recommended by current non-preferred workers.

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