New federal rule on seasonal work could imperil state’s apple industry

Posted Feb. 22, 2010, at 8:11 p.m.
Albert Wilson from Clarendon, Jamaica, picks Macinbtosh apples for Rowe's House of Apples in Newport on Thursday. Most apple producers, including Ed Buzanoski o Rowe's, are reporting a buntiul season with large, plump apples full of flavor. &quotAll that rain really created apples way above normal size," Buzanoski said this week.  BANGOR DAILY NEWS FILE PHOTO BY BRIDGET BROWN
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Albert Wilson from Clarendon, Jamaica, picks Macinbtosh apples for Rowe's House of Apples in Newport on Thursday. Most apple producers, including Ed Buzanoski o Rowe's, are reporting a buntiul season with large, plump apples full of flavor. "All that rain really created apples way above normal size," Buzanoski said this week. BANGOR DAILY NEWS FILE PHOTO BY BRIDGET BROWN

MACHIAS, Maine — A new U.S. Department of Labor rule concerning temporary agricultural workers could have an adverse impact on Maine’s apple industry, growers said last week.

The H-2A program rule which will take effect March 15 requires growers to advertise locally for agricultural positions and increases wages for temporary agricultural workers to $10.50 an hour.

Most in the apple industry already advertise locally, Judy Dimock, an apple producer in Madison, said last week. But the pay increase could entice unskilled domestic workers into the orchards, which could be a problem.

“We are now going to be required to pay both groups the same rate,” Dimock said. “It won’t matter whether they are Jamaican workers with 20 years’ experience or completely unskilled workers.”

This will put the growers at a great disadvantage, she said.

“We can’t hire domestic people to stay with us for the full season,” Dimock said. “It is impossible. They just don’t want to do the job.”

If local, untrained workers leave the orchard before the season is over or work at a much slower rate than experienced hands, Maine growers will be in a bind, she said.

Juan Perez-Febles, who monitors migrant and seasonal workers for Maine, said Friday that the financial implications to the state are yet to be determined.

Febles said there are two categories of seasonal workers: migrant workers, and foreign or guest workers.

Migrant workers are often U.S. citizens or live in the U.S. under agricultural visas. Their residency can be verified through the Immigration and Customs Enforcement — or ICE — program, which tracks workers’ legal status through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Foreign or guest workers are not U.S. citizens. They are approved for work visas under the H-2A program that verifies their status.

The new H-2A rule will not affect wreath makers or potato or blueberry harvesters because they do not use the program. But others, such as some broccoli and apple producers, rely heavily on the program because they hire foreign and guest workers, and will be affected.

“This is a very expensive program,” Febles said. “The farmers must pay to transport the workers here and provide housing. Basically, it also puts a target on the farmers’ heads because every federal agency then monitors them.”

Febles said that since the new rule was adopted about a week ago, farmers across the country and Maine are still trying to determine the financial implications.

“We are really just starting to try to understand it,” he said.

Under the new rule, a temporary or seasonal worker’s H-2A visa petition to enter and work in the U.S. cannot be approved unless Labor certifies that there are not sufficient U.S. workers qualified and available to perform the labor involved in the petition, and that the employment of the foreign worker will not have an adverse effect on the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers.

Each year, an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 seasonal farmworkers and their families come to Maine. They come from other parts of the U.S., Mexico, Central America, Caribbean nations and Canada, and play a key role in keeping Maine-grown food available at a reasonable cost.

Without these workers, some Maine agriculture companies could go out of business.

“We already know that no one local wants to work in the fields anymore,” Ed Flanagan, president of Jasper Wyman and Son in Milbridge, the world’s largest blueberry processor, said Wednesday.

“The last time my son worked in the fields, he was on a crew of 42. Forty-one were Hispanic,” Flanagan said.

“Most of Maine’s blueberry companies already use ICE and aren’t going to be affected by the new rule,” he said.

Don Flannery of the Maine Potato Board said his industry doesn’t use too many migrant workers because the season is too short. The need for 500 to 700 workers is filled by local people, many of them teenagers who get harvest week off from school.

Flanagan said using ICE for workers already within the U.S. is less complicated and entails much less paperwork than the H-2A program for foreign or guest workers.

“The H-2A program is extremely difficult to work through, partly because of its tremendous amount of paperwork,” Flanagan said.

In announcing the new rule last week, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis said the change “will make it possible for all workers who are working hard on American soil to receive fair pay while at the same time expand opportunities for U.S. workers.”

Even though many Maine employers use the ICE program, the H-2A program is used extensively in the rest of the country. During 2009, employers filed 8,150 labor certification applications requesting 103,955 H-2A workers for temporary agricultural work. The Department of Labor certified 94 percent of the applications sub-mitted for a total of 86,014 workers.

The ICE program was formed in 2003 as part of the federal government’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks and is charged with enforcing immigration and customs laws. To combat unlawful employment and reduce vulnerabilities that help illegal aliens gain such employment, the ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers program was initiated in 2007, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Web site. The goal is to assist employers to develop a more secure and stable work force and to enhance awareness of fraudulent documents.

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