A Replacement for H2A?

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A Replacement for H2A?

If you want to get a farmer-of-few-words talking, ask them what they don’t like about the H2A program. Then you can sit back and get comfortable while they count the ways.

Most growers resort to H2A only when they’ve run out of other options. The quality of the workers is usually quite good, but the cost and the red tape are formidable.

So you would think legislation for a more flexible guestworker program would be met with enthusiasm, but a recent headline in California Ag Today summed up many growers’ feelings about the proposed legislation: “Agricultural Guest Act Won’t Help California.”

The Agricultural Guestworker Act (AG Act or H2C) would replace the H2A program and allow an additional 500,000 non-residents to work year-round on US farms and ranches.

Mike Gempler, Executive Director of the Washington Growers League and an expert in ag labor legislation said, “The cap will cause shortage of 446,000 ag workers per year. Settled out farmworkers will be forced to become temporary visa workers and not have a path to citizenship, and E-verify will be instituted without a way to get supplemental workers to meet shortage. As it is written, I give it a low chance of passing the House. The ag industry sees it as a vehicle for positive change and hopes to improve it.”

Under the H2C program, the initial visa would be valid for three years, but the worker would have to “touch back” (return to their home country) for at least 45 days during that three year period. Family members could not accompany the worker. Current undocumented workers could be included in the program and thereby be exempt from deportation, but they would also have to comply with the touchback period, requiring them to return to their country, regardless of whether they left it three years ago or thirty years ago. Employers using H2C workers would have to e-verify all of their workers, which is one of the most problematic parts of the legislation from the point of view of many employers and worker advocates.

Unlike H2A, there would be no requirements that the employer provide housing or transportation. Workers would be required to purchase health insurance. Ten percent of the employee’s wages would be withheld by the employer and available in a trust administered by the USDA to help employees return home during the touchback period.

According to Gempler, employers would not be required to hire local workers once H2C workers arrived as they are with H2A. And employers can petition for workers much closer to the harvest, so they’re more likely to get the timing right than when they have to plan six months out. The Secretary of Ag would then have to approve or decline the petition within five days. Gempler sees it as a positive change that the program would be administered by the USDA rather than the USDOL.

Other changes if H2C took the place of H2A would include:

  • Lower wages state min wage instead of Adverse Effect Wage Rates
  • 50% guarantee of hours instead of 75% guarantee
  • Longer period of stay-18 months for seasonal, 36 months for non-seasonal
  • Attestation instead of labor certification process: quicker and easier and don’t have to prove shortage
  • Adds processing as an allowed job
  • No civil actions without mediation request at least 90 days prior
  • Possibility for employer to require arbitration

Labor advocates worry that with lower state wages, plus the requirement to pay for health insurance, and housing, plus the deductions for the trust and other federal deductions, could leave workers with very little pay left over. Wages for agricultural workers in Mexico are in the realm of $1.00-$1.50 an hour, so H2A jobs are still very attractive.

We did some rough calculations to see at what point an H2C job would be unattractive to a Mexican worker. Our assumptions were:

  • $10/hour, 24 work days per month, 8 hours a day,
  • $400/month for housing, $150/month for health insurance, $300/month for food and other living expenses, $600 one-way costs for travel from Mexico to the US
  • 10% withholding for the trust and 10% withholding for social security and unemployment (funds which would reportedly be used to administer the program)

This leaves $3.31/hour in savings if the worker gets 100% of the contract hours. The H2C requirement is just 50% of the contract hours. Since employers would no longer pay for transportation from the country of origin nor housing, there would be an incentive for employers to bring more people than necessary for their average needs, in order to have enough for their peaks. So let’s assume workers get 75% of the contract hours. If that were the case, workers would have about $2.48/hour in savings left over with an H2C job. To save more money, it’s possible workers would end up in substandard housing, or even camping. This could become a risk to food safety, not to mention a risk to the image of growers and brands.

Wages and working conditions in Mexican agriculture are improving as the country faces a shortage of workers particularly in the northern ag centers of Sinaloa, Sonora and Baja. It’s conceivable that within a few years, the cost/benefit of leaving their families for a year or more to make perhaps 30-50% more in wages (assuming there would be savings living with family at home) might start to look less attractive, and the lines of workers hoping for a US work visa could start to dwindle.

We asked Gempler what he thinks the agricultural labor situation would look like in five years if this law passes as-is.

“[We’ll see] an acute shortage of workers. Great disruption and displacement for thousands of settled out farmworker families who will be required to leave the US, at least for a while, and who will not have permanent status in the US.”
 

What’s next for this bill? Reportedly it’s moving forward to the full House Committee on Agriculture. Want to weigh in? Make your voice heard to your local grower association, your congressperson, or directly to the House Committee on Agriculture.

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Six Questions Series: How to detect sexual harassment?

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Six Questions Series: How to detect sexual harassment?

On Saturday, as sexual harassment continued to make national headlines, the Yakima Herald brought the issue home to the agricultural community in WA state. The article pointed out the challenges with farmworkers reporting harassment, and mentioned some resources for prevention.

If you missed the first three questions in our "Six Questions" series, you can see them here. Today we’ll explore question #4:

How can we detect and encourage reporting of sexual harassment?

With seventy-one percent of victims deciding that the risks of reporting sexual harassment outweigh the benefits, employers have a challenge on their hands.

A 2016 study published in the Harvard Business Review cites three key reasons employees may not speak up--fear of retaliation, the “bystander effect” (where one is less likely to help a victim if others are present), and a masculine culture in which sexual harassment is seen as acceptable.

The author of this study had a couple key recommendations, starting with including “bystander training” in your sexual harassment training. This recommendation could be particularly powerful in agriculture where the fear of speaking up runs so deep:

“Bystander training (rather than typical sexual harassment training which focuses on what to do if you are harassed) focuses on what you should do if you see someone else being harassed. This involves four steps: make observers aware of the problem so they can identify it when they see it, teach observers that help should always be given, increase accountability of the observer so they know that they responsible to help, and inform observers of the process for intervening.
Organizations should encourage all observers to report or intervene when they’re aware of an issue, but it’s worth noting that interventions might be particularly effective when initiated by men. Particularly in male-dominated fields, appealing to men to speak up and stop tolerating this behavior may be a key way of reducing sexual harassment.”

The study also emphasized the importance of developing accessible and clear reporting systems. What works in an office environment where everyone speaks the same language and doesn’t fear deportation, won’t necessarily work in agriculture. Solutions we’ve seen growers use include:

  • Hotline - company-run or third-party

    • Pro's: Allows low-level employees to bypass middle management and alert HR executives of a problem. Can allow for anonymity

    • Con's: Company-run or Labor Contractor-run hotlines have had very few callers, even when there are known issues, due to lack of trust. Partnering with a local community organization that has the trust of both the farmworker community and the growers (and can commit to confidentiality with both parties) could make this option more effective.

  • Surveys

    • Pro's: By including many/most employees, you can get a sense of trends and give employees more comfort that their comments will be blended with others and remain anonymous.

    • Con's: It is difficult to take remedial action on anonymous information, but generalized data could point you in the direction you need to go to investigate more or provide more training

  • Farm worker communication committees. A group of farmworkers elected by their peers, excluding foremen and with a balance of women and men

    • Pro's: can provide a powerful & essential communication channel between workers and management that leads to all sorts of productivity, culture and food safety improvements

    • Con's: can be time consuming and there's a need to educate management and workers on the difference between a communication committee and a union to avoid fear & conflict

We’ve talked with more than one company who feared what they would find out if they had truly robust and trustworthy communication systems with their field-level colleagues. But a head-in-the-sand strategy is no way to tackle high turnover and legal liability. So we’d love to hear from you:

What have been effective ways you’ve found to increase communication between your workforce and decision makers at the top, particularly strategies that allow workers to bypass foremen?

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Six Questions Every Ag Employer Should Ask Themselves About Sexual Harassment (Part 1)

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Six Questions Every Ag Employer Should Ask Themselves About Sexual Harassment (Part 1)

With a new bombshell dropping nearly every day implicating celebrities, politicians and business leaders in sexual harassment, employers may be starting to break a sweat.

Agriculture isn’t exempt. In fact, female farmworkers are especially vulnerable with 60 percent reporting having experienced sexual harassment. And ag employers are equally liable. In 2015, $17 million in damages was paid to five farmworkers in Florida who had accused their supervisors of rape and harassment.

Before we put our heads in the sand, because we don’t need one more thing to worry about in addition to the weather, the labor shortage, the market, water and pests, let’s consider that a proactive approach to sexual harassment can pay dividends in improving employee retention and satisfaction.

“I wish my daughter could work in cherries this summer to save money for college, but I’ve worked in those fields, I know what it’s like. And there’s no way I’m sending my 16 year old daughter out there.”

Female Farmworker in The Dalles, Oregon

Here are some important questions to ask:

  1. Could this be happening at our company?

  2. Wouldn’t we have heard about it if it were happening?

  3. Could we be liable?

  4. How can we detect and encourage reporting of sexual harassment?

  5. How can we prevent it?

  6. How can we address it when it happens?

We’ll dive into these questions in the next couple posts.

1. Could this be happening at our company?

Yes. Statistically speaking, it’s quite likely that sexual harassment has occurred at your company. According to a recent poll conducted by NBC and the Wall Street Journal, 48% of women in the US say they have experienced an unwelcome sexual advance or verbal or physical harassment at work. And 60 percent of female farmworkers reported experiencing sexual harassment.

2. Wouldn’t we have heard about it if it were happening?

It’s unlikely that managers would have heard about sexual harassment occurring at their company. 71 percent of women in one survey said they did not report the sexual harassment. There are many reasons for this, but it boils down to each woman running her own cost-benefit analysis. What do I stand to lose if I report this? What would I gain? The weight of what an undocumented farmworker stands to lose by reporting harassment is likely to outweigh her perception of the chances that her complaint would be taken seriously and resolved.

3. Could we be liable?

We won’t attempt to interpret the law, but this article has a summary of employer liability.

Stay tuned for more resources to help answer these questions:

  • How can we detect and encourage reporting of sexual harassment?

  • How can we prevent it?

  • How can we address it when it happens?

 

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Labor Shortage Strategies: Satisfy, Stretch, Substitute, Supplement

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Labor Shortage Strategies: Satisfy, Stretch, Substitute, Supplement

A report in Rural Migration News describes the four strategies agricultural employers are using to address the labor shortage: satisfy, stretch, substitute, and supplement. 

The number of undocumented workers in the US rose from 4 million in 1995 to 8 million in 2007. After 2007, unauthorized border crossings slowed dramatically, and the undocumented workforce stopped expanding and started contracting. Ag workers are lost to city jobs, construction jobs, retirement and returning back to their countries of origin. 

Ag employers pursue four strategies to address this shortage: 

  1. Satisfy: As with any business, it's smarter and usually cheaper to figure out how to satisfy your current customers/employees than to have to find new ones. The new ones will likely leave you for the same reasons if you don't address the causes of their dissatisfaction. And happy employees can bring in great referrals. But how do you use your limited resources in the best possible way to increase retention? Deepening your understanding of what makes your people stay (is it your wages? benefits? nice supervisors?) and what makes them leave (bad supervisors? inconsistent shifts?) can improve your return on investment of your time and money. Ganaz's new survey tool allows you to anonymously survey your whole workforce in just a few clicks. In future posts, we'll share ideas on what questions to ask. 

  2. Stretch: According to the report, dwarf trees, conveyor belts, and platform harvesters are helping growers do more with fewer workers. Another way of stretching the overall workforce is finding people that used to work in agriculture and are employed in other industries now. Ganaz has noticed a number of applicants coming back to agriculture for a week or two in addition to their other job to make some extra money. This is especially helpful for meeting peak harvest labor needs.

  3. Substitute: In Silicon Valley and Seattle, the tech industry is pretty sure hand labor will soon be a thing of the past. But that talk fades as you drive further away from the office parks and towards the fields. Huge bets are being placed on robotics as many growers are losing sleep about the future of their workforce. But the return on those investments is mostly still unrealized, very risky and unlikely to be appropriate for all crops and small farmers. 

  4. Supplement: While we don't see many growers holding their breath for a robot to save them, many are taking the plunge into H2A. The H2A program has more than doubled in the last decade with most of the workers going to FL and NC. But WA and CA are now posting the fastest growth numbers and more than a few former agricultural workers now have construction jobs building housing for future H2A workers. 

Which of the four S's has been most important for your operation?

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$12+ per hour, the new normal?

$12+ per hour, the new normal?

As of April 2017, only six states in the US report average farmworker wages below $12/hour--AR, LA, MS, GA, SC and AL. This USDA wage survey data includes field workers, livestock workers, and other roles like tractor drivers. For all farm labor, the US average is now $13.23/hour. 

If you look at field workers alone, the average hourly wage in the US was $12.22 as of April 2017, with just a few regions below $12/hour: Appalachia, Florida, MS Delta, Southern Plains and the Rocky Mountain Regions. 

Wages are up 50% on average nationally and in California since 2008. 

This USDA survey data rings true as Ganaz works with growers across the country on recruiting. Jobs posted for $13+/hr have mountains of applicants. Jobs posted for $12+/hr almost always get quite a few applicants. And jobs in the $11 range not only have had almost no applicants, the reaction from farmworkers to these jobs is swift and negative. Comments range from, "Why would I take this job if I can wash dishes for $13?" to "That's not even enough to feed our family." 

So what's a farmer to do? Obviously, keeping informed of and staying at or above average wages in your region is critical. It's also no secret that the more you can enhance your wages offering with benefits, the easier it is to attract and especially retain workers. 

  • Housing is the holy grail of benefits. While most benefits help with retention, housing also really helps with attracting new applicants. Easier said than done, though, right?

  • Season-end bonuses are common practice in some regions & products, but rare in others. If you're struggling with retention & productivity, tying a season-end bonus to productivity (and making it at least 5% of wages) can help

What's your secret sauce for attracting and retaining great farmworkers?

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Here's the USDA April wage data broken down by state for field workers alone (excludes livestock and other farm roles) down by region:

New England & NY: 13.43

NY, NJ, PA, MD, DE: 12.09

NC, VA: 11.69

KY, TN, WV: 11.49

AL, GA, SC: 10.55

FL: 11.10

MI, MN, WI: 12.58

IL, IN OH: 13.17

IA, MO: 12.60

AR, LA, MS: 10.73

KS, NE, ND, SD: 14.81

OK, TX: 11.54

ID, MT, WY: 11.60

CO, NV UT: 11.48

AZ, NM: 10.62

OR, WA: 12.87

CA: 12.80

HI: 14.00

US average Field worker wage: 12.22

 

How to text 1000 farmworkers in less than a minute

How to text 1000 farmworkers in less than a minute

Did you know that about 8.6 trillion text messages are sent each year? That includes 6 billion per day in the US alone.

And farmworkers are no exception to the texting trend. In fact, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, 87% of latinos use their phones for texting--a higher rate than the average in the US.

Facebook, Facebook Messenger, YouTube and Whatsapp are the most popular apps used by US farmworkers in our surveys. Whatsapp is especially popular with those that still have very close ties to Mexico since Whatsapp is far more popular than text messaging south of the border. Farmworkers, too, are living in the digital age!

Thanks to grower & farmworker feedback, Ganaz can now be used to send text messages to workers that don't yet have the Ganaz app. 

Here's how to do it:

  1. From your Ganaz app, choose "Communicate with my workers"

  2. Choose the workers from your address book you'd like to communicate with OR, if you have a large number of workers, send us a spreadsheet with their phone numbers and we'll add them to your account 

  3. Once you've chosen all the workers you want to add to the message, click Continue

  4. Type your message, and auto-translate into Spanish if you'd like and hit "Submit."

Voilá or rather, Andale! Workers that have an account on the app already will receive your message in their Ganaz message inbox. Workers without an account will get a text message. At this point, only users that have the app can respond to you. 

So here's your question: how important is it to you that workers without the Ganaz app be able to send you a response?