A Labor Department program called H2A changed my company for the better.
I wish I had known about it from the start. I want to pass on the good news.
My journey toward finding solid workers whom I can trust has not been a straight line. Here in upstate New York, the farming labor market is sparse. That small pool grew even smaller because I couldn’t compete for the more professional workers who went with venture capitalist-owned farms that pay $30 an hour. Nor would I hire illegal immigrants, who often give employers fake social security cards.
For the most part, I hired locals, seeking a change of life, and recent college graduates wanting a temporary summer job. The students’ limited availability was a problem because the dahlia season stretches through summer into December, when we dig up all the tubers. In addition, one needs a specific set of skills to grow dahlias. I needed expert, conceptual, and artistically inclined cutters. Every year I found myself left with the time-consuming task of reteaching workers all over again.
There was another set of difficulties I didn’t expect. Knowing I was a start-up and from the city, everyone assumed I knew very little. They regularly questioned my directions because they all assumed they had more “gardening” experience than I. (Does anyone really think I would start a business and have made a substantial investment without having done my homework?) Trying to explain and rationalize why a home gardening idea didn’t translate to commercial farming didn’t work so I tried to incorporate employee advice as often as possible to not appear an unfeeling or bullheaded boss, but it usually turned out badly. These experiences were frustrating and sometimes costly, so I learned to trust my own instincts above all else. Still, some workers went so far as to act without my permission. One guy took my tractor when I was out of town, plowed acres of my back land for two days and broke shank, grille and mirrors and never even bothered to tell me. A female worker inexplicably chopped down trees on my property. Though I had be at the helm of other businesses in the past, this one just seemed to have more challenging people issues. I think some didn’t expect farm work to be so strenuous, perhaps others didn’t take the work seriously because they knew they were out the door soon, and a few in career change mode were searching and had a lot on their minds. Focus and cohesiveness were just not hallmarks of the team.
Fortunately, I knew I was not alone. A neighboring vegetable farmer was having the same type of issues. He said of his farm, “Where things grow and relationships die.” This surprised me because the labor pool for vegetable farms is usually bigger than that for flowers. It seems growing food is appealing as it is viewed as doing something needed and beneficial for society. Growing flowers is often seen as a beauty project and therefore, frivolous, reducing the labor pool even further.
- Offer a job that is of a temporary or seasonal nature.
- Demonstrate that there are not enough U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified and available to do the temporary work.
- Show that employing H-2A workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers.
- Generally, submit a single valid temporary labor certification from the U.S. Department of Labor with the H-2A petition.