July 2021, Volume 27, Number 3
Farmers in southeastern states compete directly with fresh fruits and vegetables from Mexico. The rapid expansion of fruit and vegetable production in Mexico is an example of trade in place of migration. A million Mexicans are employed on Mexican export farms, and there are two million Mexican-born US farm workers.
The Mexican-born US farm workforce is aging and settled with US-born children, reducing their flexibility. H-2A workers from Mexico are the fresh and flexible blood in the US farm workforce. Florida and other southeastern states are most dependent on H-2A workers, who are a decade younger than settled Mexican-born farm workers, are legal, and are 15 to 25 percent more productive in terms of boxes or bins picked per day.
Employer-paid transportation and housing costs are higher for H-2A workers, but these higher costs are offset by higher productivity and the labor insurance inherent in contract workers who must remain with their US employer.
H-2A workers are likely to account for 15 percent of average US crop employment in 2021, approaching the peak 20 percent Bracero share of US crop workers in the mid-1950s. The roles of H-2A workers vary by commodity, from a bridge to mechanization in apples to sustaining shrinking melon and tomato sectors. Regulatory and legislative uncertainty surround the H-2A program; if employer costs are reduced, the H-2A program could expand faster.
Florida produced 52 million boxes of oranges in 2020-21, about the same as California, as citrus greening or HLB reduced Florida production. In 1997-98, Florida produced a record 244 million boxes of citrus.
IMG Citrus subsidiary Happy Food LLC was denied permission by St Lucie county to build four 2,930-square-foot dormitory-style buildings to each house 24 H-2A workers in May 2021. The citrus firm has H-2A housing in Groveland.
Lehigh Acres’ Pride Harvesting paid an additional $268 each to 81 H-2A workers in May 2021 because it failed to keep their meal costs at $12.46 per day. The workers slept in motels, and Pride allowed them to pay for their own meals from visiting taco trucks.
Statewide Harvesting & Hauling LLC of Dundee in May 2021 was found to owe overtime wages to supervisors who drove H-2A workers to buy groceries each week. Statewide employs H-2A workers to harvest oranges from 1,500 orchards and haul them to processing plants. Two Statewide field supervisors sued in 2017 for overtime wages because of the four hours a week they spent driving the workers for non-work activities. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the supervisors, holding that they were covered by the overtime provisions of the FLSA because their work was entirely off the farm.