Business

Farm to cubicle, Idaho’s workforce has thousands of guest workers

H-2A visa provides local farmers labor when needed

The H-2A visa allows employers to bring workers into the country for seasonal or temporary agricultural jobs. The Washington-based association that helped Obendorf Farms hire its guest workers is now branching into the Treasure Valley, saying loca
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The H-2A visa allows employers to bring workers into the country for seasonal or temporary agricultural jobs. The Washington-based association that helped Obendorf Farms hire its guest workers is now branching into the Treasure Valley, saying loca

Dave Bergh has welcomed men from Mexico to his Mountain Home farm since the 1980s. They do the jobs he says nobody else wants to do. For hours a day, they lift and move 3-inch sprinkler pipes so water can reach every inch of soil that grows alfalfa, corn, sugar beet, winter wheat and other crops.

Bergh pays for the workers’ visas, housing, food and transportation. It’s expensive, he said, but worth it.

“We request the same workers every year,” he said. “They’re excellent workers. That’s why we go through all of this, because we need these guys.”

This year, five men from the same family came from “deep in Southern Mexico” to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the three full-time, year-round workers at Bergh Farms.

They are among the more than 4,000 people each year who work in Idaho’s agriculture, technology, forestry, construction and other industries as guest workers under various U.S. visa programs.

Guest workers pick apples in Treasure Valley orchards.

They herd sheep near Blackfoot and shear them in Wilder.

They split rock in Southern Idaho and manicure lawns in Boise.

They are beekeepers and beekeepers’ assistants in Idaho Falls, Soda Springs and West Fruitland.

They teach engineering, sciences and humanities courses at Idaho’s universities.

They fill health care openings across the state.

And they work alongside U.S.-born STEM graduates at Micron Technology in Boise. Micron said it has 350 H-1B visa workers among its 9,500 employees across the U.S.

Boise’s J.R. Simplot Co. has sought both farm workers and corporate positions alike through guest worker programs.

The workers are paid well above minimum wage to fill jobs that employers say cannot be filled otherwise.

High school kids used to do it, but they don’t do it anymore, and no one else seems interested.

Dave Bergh, partner in Bergh Farms

The average Idaho agricultural guest worker last year made $11.09 per hour, according to federal records.

For guest workers doing nonagricultural labor, the going rate was $15.05 per hour.

The highly educated professionals who spent last year in Idaho under the H-1B program made an average $71,988 annual wage.

These guest worker programs have weathered controversy.

Some business groups, labor advocates and others support the programs as a solution to labor shortages in the U.S. This legal and regulated supply of seasonal labor, they say, keeps domestic food prices down while offering workers from Mexico and other nations a much better income than they make in their home countries.

But the programs also take heat from other business and labor groups, and from civil rights advocates. Some argue the programs have a depressing effect on the economy. They say companies use the programs to avoid hiring locals or to lay them off and then replace them with cheaper workers brought in on visas. Others point to cases of worker mistreatment. A 2014 lawsuit against an Oakley forestry employer alleged abuse against workers who came from Mexico to work in forests near Sacramento; the lawsuit was settled and dismissed early this year.

Many Idahoans say the visa programs need to be revamped to overcome delays and to remove caps on the number or proportion of workers who can come to the U.S. from other countries.

LOCAL WORKERS BALK

Ron Bergh, manager of Bergh Farms and son of Dave Bergh, said the program is the only way to find a manual laborer for the grunt work of moving pipes.

It is illegal for an employer to hire a visa worker and deny the same job to a domestic worker. Ron Bergh says that has meant, in the past, that his farm had to hire a local.

“We’ve probably gone through four or five of them,” he said. “Shortest was a couple of days, and the longest was a couple weeks.”

Another business, Van Deusen Ranch in Emmett, said domestic workers have lasted just hours.

The trouble with the visa program, Bergh said, is that it is expensive, and workers are increasingly held up at the border or by paperwork at the federal Labor Department offices in Chicago. As a result, they arrived at the farm 10 days late this year.

That’s a problem because “we need to water,” he said.

HEAVILY USED IN IDAHO

Nonetheless, the programs are popular with Idaho employers.

Melaleuca, Hewlett-Packard, Glanbia, Chobani, Bodybuilding.com, Battelle Energy Alliance and other well-known Idaho employers each had at least one certified visa worker last year, according to federal records. Several employers were granted more than 100 visa workers in Idaho.

But most are like Van Deusen Ranch in Emmett, with just one or two workers a year.

The ranch has hired through the H-2A visa program since at least 2000, said Jim Little, president of the family corporation that owns the ranch. The H-2A program allows employers and workers to renew their annual contracts twice, then reapply.

The ranch has four full-time employees and currently has just one guest worker from Mexico.

“It pays good, it’s a lot of money for him,” Little said. “He’s happy with it, because he came right back” for a second year.

The job is a 48-hour work week paying $11.75 an hour. The benefits include housing, one meal a day and workers’ compensation.

When it comes to agriculture, Idaho is the nation’s ninth-largest importer of guest workers. The state had 2,096 certified H-2A visa positions in the most recent fiscal year, according to U.S. Office of Foreign Labor Certification data. “Certified” means the employer met all the criteria to hire a worker under that visa program.

The Van Deusen Ranch, like other local operations, hires workers through an association that handles the paperwork and other requirements.

Even with that help, Little said the program is enough of a headache that he has considered moving to an automated system instead of using manual labor.

NEW PLAYER MOVES IN

Farmers nearby, though, may start using the agricultural visa program more often. Currently, businesses in Ada and Canyon counties employ a small share of Idaho’s H-2A guest workers. But one of the nation’s busiest visa employers has come to town.

Wafla, formerly known as the WA Farm Labor Association, is one of the largest H-2A organizations in the country. It essentially acts like a temp agency for farm work. It has long staffed farms in Washington and Oregon but recently began branching into the Treasure Valley.

So far this year, Wafla has posted openings for 70 employees to work on farms that grow apples, plums and cherries in Fruitland and Parma. The workers would be paid $11.75 an hour for general farm labor; or $17 to $30 per bin, $3.50 per bushel or $5.50 per 30-pound lug for the fruit.

The reason they’re here is for jobs. You need to make it easier to use the legal worker program.

Dan Fazio, executive director and CEO of Wafla

Wafla rented office space in Parma in April. Fazio said it now has 20 members in Idaho: hops, fruit, seed and onion farmers.

“There’s just a huge labor shortage, and this is a program you’re supposed to use when you have a shortage of workers,” said Dan Fazio, executive director and CEO of Wafla, which is headquartered in Lacey, Wash.

Fazio said the H-2A program benefits seasonal workers because it provides a good wage, legal presence, housing and a contract. The employer also pays for transportation to and from home countries, which costs about $1,200, Fazio said.

“It’s a very, very high up-front cost for the grower, but then again the grower knows that they’re doing it the way the government says,” Fazio said.

Asked about the potential for abuse, Fazio said Wafla is the applicant of record, so it is “on the hook” for the employee being paid and treated well. He argued that employers would be unlikely to abuse workers after spending $1,200 to bring them to the U.S.

He said Wafla follows up on worker complaints. If a worker does not call Wafla asking to be placed with that employer again, the association finds out why, he said.

GUEST WORKER POLITICS

Fazio said the visa program has become a “political football” amid debates about immigration and immigration reform.

Micron spokesman Dan Francisco said the U.S. immigration system is “outdated and ineffective,” barring innovation by “forcing highly educated immigrants to leave the U.S. because they are unable to obtain visas.”

That makes it hard for Micron and others to recruit and retain global talent, he said.

Fazio said he thinks federal priorities are wrong when it comes to immigration and guest-worker systems. He wants the H-2A visa program to be easier to use, allowing more workers to legally enter the country, and to require employers to use the government’s Internet-based E-Verify system to check the legal status of nonvisa workers.

There were about 50,000 undocumented immigrants in Idaho in 2012, according to Pew Research Center. That includes children.

Idaho’s congressional delegation generally supports the guest-worker program but seeks reform.

The state’s two Republican U.S. senators in 2012 urged federal agencies to consult with farmers about visa delays and denied applications. Earlier this month, Idaho’s two Republican congressmen joined about 100 other House members asking the Obama administration to speed up the H-2A process, saying application delays have persisted for the past two years and made it hard for farms and ranches to timely hire legal seasonal workers.

“We’re in that transition period where migrant workers don’t show up anymore,” Fazio said. “So we need to use the government program.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated from its original to remove an inaccurate reference to legislation on foreign workers.

Audrey Dutton: 208-377-6448, @IDS_Audrey

Worker visas

There are many types of visa programs that allow foreign nationals to work in the U.S. Here are four:

H-2A: Temporary agricultural jobs

H-2B: Temporary nonagricultural jobs

H-1B: Specialty occupations, certain U.S. Department of Defense jobs, fashion models

Employment-based/Permanent: For workers (and spouses and children) who want to immigrate based on job skills. Some visas require workers to have a job offer first.

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