Complications Exist for Guest Worker Programs

Tifton, GA

Down in Tifton recently, producers gathered for the annual Ag Labor Forum – an event designed to educate and inform growers on the ever so changing guest worker programs producers utilize on their operations. It’s an event that Chris Butts, Executive Vice President of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association says is of the utmost importance due to just how vital those programs are to our producers and their operations.

“For fruit and vegetable production in particular, skilled labor is vital to getting those products to the to the grocery store shelves. Fruit and vegetables are typically much more labor intensive in production, in harvesting and packing them than other crops,” says Butts. “So, we’ve got to have the experienced labor that knows how to go out and pick and protect and bring the high-quality produce that our customers are expecting now to grocery store shelves around the calendar now, 365 days a year. We can’t do that without a skilled labor force and the reality is, we don’t have a whole lot of folks, domestic workers that are coming applying for those jobs. So, the H-2A workers provide a very needed service for our food production and also provides opportunities for those workers.”

For producers, utilizing the programs can be complicated and overwhelming, as they must comply with nearly six hundred pages of rules and regulations, which is why Butts says the forum proves just how important the programs are and how willing producers are to doing it the right way.

“We think the conference is really a demonstration of the efforts that growers are willing to put forth to try to remain on the right side of compliance. As we mentioned, it’s complicated. There are new rules coming out from the Department of Labor, new rules coming from Department of Homeland Security, new rules coming from OSHA. So, it becomes a full-time job just to remain up to date on those new rules and making sure you’re performing under those rules,” says Butts. “It’s important that we do so because we are so reliant on the H-2A and H-2B programs. As an industry, we’ve got to do what we can to protect those programs and make sure that they’re working as intended and that we are providing an opportunity for those folks to come to work on our farms and that they are helping us be able to grow the produce that feeds our country. Without that program, we can’t do it.”

According to Butts, the rules are constantly changing and the affects can be quite drastic, as even now, they’re waiting to see what new rules will be taking affect in the coming year.

“Georgia experienced a 14% increase in the in the adverse wage rate for 2023. We estimate that cost our growers about $120 million in extra wages this year. So, the setting of that wage for 2024 will be critical, but also the new rules that are coming out that address everything from the application process all the way up to organized labor’s role on the farm. We have some concerns with property rights and privacy rights, both the farmers, but also the employees. So, we’re preparing comments in response to those new proposed rules, but we fear that overall, they’re going to make things more complex and more difficult for a grower to be able to utilize the program,” says Butts.

By: John Holcomb