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Area Employers Worry About Impact of Immigration Crackdown

  • Roy Mitchell, of Manchester, Jamaica, dumps thinned tomato leaves on a pile bound for compost as the farm dog Sugar lounges at Edgewater Farm in Plainfield, N.H., Wednesday, May 11, 2017. Mitchell has split his time between working his own farm in Jamaica and spending six months out of the year working at Edgewater Farm for the last 16 years. As the nationalist rhetoric of Donald Trump intensified in the months since he was elected, Mitchell and other seasonal laborers at the farm were concerned their work opportunities in the U.S. might end. "I was worried that I wouldn't be coming back, but here we are," said Mitchell. "I don't know what next year will bring, but we are here now." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • While thinning tomato plants at Edgewater Farm in Plainfield, N.H., Ray Sprague, right, discusses the health care policy debate taking place in the U.S. Congress with seasonal laborer Roy Mitchell, of Manchester, Jamaica, left, Wednesday, May 11, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Garnet Gordon, of St. Catherine, Jamaica, clips a tomato plant to a hanging line in an Edgewater Farm greenhouse in Plainfield, N.H., Wednesday, May 10, 2017. Gordon grows bananas, peas and corn on his farm in Jamaica for half the year. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Seasonal laborers from Jamaica, from left, Syford Henderson, Roy Mitchell, Jasper Lindsay, and Garnet Gordon, pick suckers off young tomato plants and brace them against a suspension system in an Edgewater Farm greenhouse in Plainfield, N.H., Wednesday, May 10, 2017. All of the men work their own farms in Jamaica's year-round growing season, but come north on seasonal work visas to help support their families. "I hope (Trump) doesn't stop this program, because there are a lot of guys in Jamaica that really need the work," said Mitchell. "We really need the work," he said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, May 20, 2017

Lebanon — Upper Valley employers aren’t sure how President Donald Trump’s actions to tighten federal visa programs might affect them, but businesses throughout the region say they need continued access to foreign labor pools to survive.

“Frankly, I’m scared to death right now about what their prospects are,” said Steve Wood, owner of Poverty Lane Orchards in Lebanon, speaking about the handful of seasonal workers who have come north from Jamaica every year since 1992 to help him manage his apple crops.

“They rely on me to take care of their families, and I rely on them,” said Wood.

The workers come to the country under the H-2A visa program, which allows American agricultural businesses to hire overseas labor. Businesses in other sectors, including the hospitality industry, rely on a foreign labor force hired through other programs, such as the J-1 student visa and the H-2B program.

For fiscal year 2015, the most recent year on record, Vermont employers requested 515 workers through the H-2A program, while New Hampshire employers requested 167, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor.

“They are the main picking force up here,” Wood said. “After years of trying to hire Americans to pick, and putting them in our bunkhouse, we’re having some success.”

At Edgewater Farm in Plainfield, owner Pooh Sprague said four workers from Jamaica anchor his workforce during the busy pruning and harvesting season. He said the workers are more reliable, more skilled, and have a better work ethic than the average American who is willing to work in his orchards and fields.

“High school and college kids don’t solve the labor problem,” he said.

Sprague said hiring his H-2A workers allowed him to expand his business, and that losing access to them would cause his business to contract again.

“We’d have to backpedal and downsize,” he said. “Without some stability from year to year, and the professional work ethic, it would be pretty hard to do what we do.”

International labor pools are also important to summer camps, according to Chris Overtree, executive director for the Aloha Foundation, the Fairlee-based nonprofit that runs summer camps and education programs on Lake Morey and Lake Fairlee.

Overtree said Trump’s election raised concerns about the J-1 workforce, which includes about 85 mostly young international workers in a total seasonal workforce of nearly 500.

“We wondered if there would be a noticeable change, but we haven’t seen it,” said Overtree. “I’m politically interested in seeing access to international staff continue.”

Overtree said the camp outsources its hiring to an international agency. Some prospective staff members have had their visas denied this year, he said, but that happens every year.

He said the workers — who hail from Russia, Hungary, Turkey, Mexico, Columbia, England and the Czech Republic — are important to the camp, not only because the foundation would have a difficult time filling all its camp counselor and kitchen assistant positions, but also because having workers from overseas adds to the camp culture.

“It kind of broadens the diversity of experiences that our campers have with their role models and mentors,” he said. “We develop really powerful communities and deep friendships from all over the world.”

Critical Part of the Workforce

The H-2B visa program sources seasonal labor for a variety of nonagricultural blue-collar jobs, including housecleaning and kitchen staff, throughout the hospitality industry.

Unlike the H-2A program, the H-2B program that helps fuel the region’s hospitality industry operates under a cap, allowing a total of 66,000 workers to enter the country every year for a period of several months.

Gary Thulander, president and general manager of the Woodstock Inn, said he hires a couple of dozen workers, mostly from South American and Central America, every year for four- to five-month stints as housekeepers, dishwashers, cooks and wait staff support.

The workers come on a combination of H-2B and J-1 visas, and are a critical component of the inn’s 300-member workforce, Thulander said.

“The good news is we’re growing our business. The difficult part is pairing with the workforce that we have locally,” he said. “It currently doesn’t support all that we need.”

Thulander said losing the workers would create a “tremendous burden” on the rest of the staff, who would be asked to limit their days off and put in extra hours.

“It does affect the quality of how we take care of our guests, and it’s critical for us to maintain that service quality,” he said.

Sprague and Wood said they’re both anxiously waiting to see whether Trump will take any actions that might affect the H-2A program as part of his larger agenda on immigration.

A Strain on the Cap

When releasing his “Buy American, Hire American” plan, Trump ordered a review of the H-1B program for skilled workers from overseas, and he has also stepped up efforts to prevent illegal immigration. His executive order to create a travel ban from several Muslim-majority countries is tied up in court.

Federal changes to the H-2B program have made it more difficult for employers to get the workers they need. In 2016, congressional Republicans eliminated an exemption that allowed returning seasonal workers to come back to their same employers without counting against the cap.

The loss of the exemption put more strain on the cap, with employers requesting 82,100 workers from a pool consisting of just 33,000 workers allowed in the second half of the year.

The federal government spending bill that was passed earlier this month gives the Department of Homeland Security the authority to raise the annual cap to about 130,000, but it remains to be seen whether the administration will actually implement that increase.

Thulander said he saw the passage of the provision in the budget as a good sign.

Tone of the Debate

Still, the overall tone of the immigration debate in Washington has shifted in a way that has employers, and workers, worried.

When Trump was elected last November, Roy Mitchell planted some peanuts.

Mitchell is a citizen of Jamaica, but he’s one of hundreds of foreign-born workers who come to the Twin States every year to work for American businesses. For the last 15 years, Mitchell’s come to rely on his work at Edgewater Farm to support his household, including feeding his two children.

“It’s a great help to us,” he said. “It costs a lot of money to send the kids to school.”

Mitchell said Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric as a candidate had him concerned that, this year, he wouldn’t be able to make it back.

“It made me really worried,” he said. Because he wasn’t sure, he tried planting peanuts back home so that he’d have some source of income.

All April he fretted, unsure if his entry into the country would be allowed.

“I couldn’t hear anything about my status,” he said.

Now, though Trump’s taken no concrete action on the H-2A program, Mitchell isn’t reassured.

“Somewhere along the line, he’s probably going to cut it,” he said.

‘Atmospherics and Jawboning’

Woodstock resident Peter Rousmaniere, a labor consultant who has special expertise in immigrant labor pools, said concerns about Trump hampering legal worker programs may be overblown.

“Just reading from afar, I don’t think those programs are going to be affected,” Rousmaniere said. “There’s no strong lobby that these programs are taking jobs away from Americans, and it’s extremely easy to prove that they’re not.”

Over Trump’s first 100 days in office, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials arrested more than 41,000 undocumented immigrants, an increase of nearly 38 percent over the same period last year. Arrests of undocumented immigrants who had committed no crime other than being in the country without authorization more than doubled, to 11,000 arrests.

Rousmaniere said Trump’s goal will rely less on the actual number of immigrants deported, and more on “atmospherics and jawboning” that will please his base and create an expectation of deportation within the undocumented immigrant community.

“If Trump does just as well as Obama did, maybe 400,000 to 500,000 (deportations a year), they will have achieved their goal, even if they have not significantly increased the number being deported,” he said.

Wood said his Jamaican workers, who are expected to arrive at Poverty Lane Orchards in early June, were also tuned into the national mood. After a hard day of work, they retire every night to a shared bunkhouse, where they often watch television together.

“The most lively place in this whole county when there’s a presidential debate going on is in our bunkhouse,” said Wood. “Those guys know more about American politics and history than most of us. They’re shouting and laughing and then getting (angry).”

But Wood said Trump’s election has cast a pall over the happy work environment.

“I went over there the night of the election,” he said. “It was a bunch of guys glumly staring at the TV they were usually shouting at.”

Administrative Delays

Wood said the H-2A program is already difficult to use. Over the past 15 years, he said, the Department of Labor has increased fees and paperwork requirements, while reducing flexibility in timetables. Workers who show up a day late are cast out of the program, he said.

“We have power, undeserved, unwanted power over people’s lives,” Wood said. “I had a guy show up one year who, as soon as he got here, ran to the phone, because when he left Jamaica his wife was in labor. There was no way for him to call and say, ‘Can I come a week or two later.’ ”

Because it takes at least five weeks to process an application, Wood said, there’s no way for him to use his H-2A workers to respond to unanticipated changes in his labor needs due to, for example, weather patterns.

Brenda Bailey, a manager at Poverty Lane Orchards, said the business has applied to have this year’s workers arrive on June 1, but that she anticipated delays due to administrative processing and additional paperwork requirements.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, a national farm advocacy group, found that administrative delays that slow the flow of H-2A migrant workers into the country cost farms $320 million.

Wood said that, after Trump issued a handful of executive orders targeting other visa programs, he spoke to the workers by phone to touch base, and make sure that they could still rely on each other.

“It’s like sharing a grim chuckle,” Wood said. “They are not as offended as I am myself. They know that they are in a post-colonial world that still treats people the way they did.”

Chance Payette, the state program monitor for the Vermont Department of Labor, is tasked with making sure that Vermont employers who hire foreign workers through the programs aren’t sidelining American-born workers in the process.

“My piece of this process is the local recruitment,” he said. “Our job is to find the local workers for those jobs.”

Before Wood or Sprague hire a Jamaican worker, they first have to advertise the positions locally. If a qualified American-born applicant shows up, they must hire the applicant in favor of the H-2A worker. The Department of Labor also directs qualified applicants to employers who use foreign labor. If the applicant is turned away, Payette report the employer’s name to the U.S. Department of Labor for a federal investigation.

Payette says the system works pretty well — in the four years he’s been monitoring the state’s workers, he’s only had to report a single employer to the federal government.

Payette said that, because employers aren’t able to successfully hire locally, particularly in rural, out-of-the way areas across the state, the workforce is vital to the state economy.

“Obviously, there’s a definite need for the program,” he said. “We need to get the crops out of the field We need to get the fruit off the trees.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.