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Fearful Farmers Rush To Find 'Guest Workers'

Guest workers harvest much of North Carolina's sweet potato crop, including at the fields of Burch Farms, in Faison, N.C.
Dan Charles/NPR
Guest workers harvest much of North Carolina's sweet potato crop, including at the fields of Burch Farms, in Faison, N.C.

Dan Fazio says his phone is "ringing off the hook" these days.

He's executive director of WAFLA, an organization that helps fruit growers in Washington state find workers — and specifically, foreign workers who are allowed to enter the U.S. specifically as seasonal workers on farms.

WAFLA takes care of the bureaucratic details. It applies for permission from the Department of Labor to bring in workers for specific jobs. It certifies that it has looked for U.S. citizens to do these jobs and can't find them. Then it locates people in places like Mexico, or Central America. These "guest workers" get a special visa, called an H-2A visa, that lets them stay in the country temporarily, usually for no more than 10 months. WAFLA brings them by bus to the fields and orchards of Washington.

"This year, we'll get labor certifications for over 10,000 workers," Fazio says.

Interest in WAFLA's services is surging for two different reasons. There's a shortage of farm workers across the country. But more recently, it's also been driven by fear of the Trump administration's immigration crackdown.

"We haven't seen any raids, but we have seen the paranoia," says Fazio. "A government vehicle drives by a farm, and all the farm workers run away."

The workers, many of whom are in the country without legal authorization, are worried about deportation. But farm employers are worried, too. Because if they lose their workers, they could also lose their harvest.

So they're getting on the phone to Fazio, looking for workers who are here legally, and won't run away.

Use of these H-2A visas has already been growing in recent years, because farmers are finding it hard to find enough workers.

Users of the program include tobacco and sweet potato growers in North Carolina, small organic farms in Pennsylvania, even the Trump Winery, in Virginia.

They're turning to workers like Felipe Montan.

Montan's home is in Veracruz, Mexico. That's where I reached him, by phone. But he'll soon leave his family there and get on a bus to North Carolina, to work in sweet potato fields. He's been doing this for the past ten years. He'll spend most of the year there.

The separation from his family is hard, Montan says, but there's just not much work at home in Veracruz. He's also moved to other parts of Mexico, for months at a time, to find work. But the work in North Carolina pays much more. "It has helped me to improve my house," he says. "It has allowed me to pay for education for my kids. I have a daughter who's in the university."

The guest worker program has plenty of critics. The H-2A visa ties a worker to one employer. That can leave workers vulnerable to abuse or exploitation.

Montan says it's generally worked out well for him. He gives a lot of credit to a union contract between a group of North Carolina growers and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, which is part of the AFL-CIO. These are the only H-2A workers who are covered by a union contract.

In California, the country's biggest agricultural state, guest workers are rare. Most farmers there have refused to use the H-2A program, due to the many regulations that come with it.

Employer-provided housing near La Belle, Florida, for guest workers who harvest oranges and grapefruit.
/ Dan Charles/NPR
Dan Charles/NPR
Employer-provided housing near La Belle, Florida, for guest workers who harvest oranges and grapefruit.

Employers are required to provide free housing and transportation to workers. They also have to pay a wage that the government sets for each area. This year, in California, that minimum hourly wage is $12.57.

But some of those farmers now are so worried about immigration enforcement that they're calling Jeanne Malitz, a lawyer in San Diego who specializes in guest worker applications. Malitz is hiring more people in her law firm to handle the workload.

"I don't sleep very much these days!" she says.

I reached Malitz right after she finished talking to farmers in the town of San Luis Obisbo. "They want to know, what are all the rules? What do we do? Where are we going to get housing?" Malitz says.

Last year, nationwide, about 160,000 farm jobs were filled by guest workers. That comes to about 10 percent of all the jobs in fields and orchards, taking care of planting, pruning, and harvesting.

Malitz wouldn't be surprised if that number doubled over the next five years.

In fact, she's wondering if the Department of Labor will have enough people to handle all the applications that they're about to receive.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.