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Published April 05, 2010, 09:11 AM

New visa restrictions make it tougher for farmers to fire harvest workers

HAYS, Kan. — It is a job with long hours and time away from family — and vacation typically means there is a rain delay.

By: Amy Bickel, Hutchinson (Kan.) News

HAYS, Kan. — It is a job with long hours and time away from family — and vacation typically means there is a rain delay.

Which is why on a hot June day last year, South African Tertius Kroucamp stood in a Kansas’ Lane County wheat field doing a job that most Americans don’t necessarily want — harvesting the crops that grow amid the nation’s middle.

Now, the nation’s custom cutters are expressing worry that it might get tougher to hire foreign workers using H-2A visas, like Kroukamp — making it more expensive and adding layers of bureaucracy to the process of finding qualified labor.

“We’re all concerned,” says Clayton Befort, a custom cutter from Hays who typically hires about half his 50 employees using workers on H-2A visas. “If they make it harder, it will be tough to get enough help.”

Rule reversal

Earlier this year, the Labor Department announced it was reversing Bush administration rules that made it easier for farmers to hire temporary foreign workers to harvest crops under the

H-2A program.

New regulations are expected to increase wages, offer greater protection for the thousands of foreign farm workers, and require growers and companies like Befort’s to make a better effort to fill jobs with domestic workers.

This includes carrying a bond to cover salaries, providing more personal information such as annual revenues, as well as offering employment to any qualified U.S. worker who applies for

a job — even if a foreigner worker already has filled the position.

New rules go took effect March 15,

according to the department.

“It’s not friendlier,” says Garold Dungy of Missouri, who runs C & C Placement, a company that connects foreign workers with farmers and cutters. “It’s costly and it’s hard to navigate and everything about it is to discourage its use.”

Many custom harvesters use the program because domestic workers are hard to find, Dungy says. Some Americans don’t want seasonal jobs or to travel on the road away from family

and friends. College students typically are employed, but they cannot work the entire season, which runs from May through November or December.

“I can’t blame them, for the most part,” he says of Americans not wanting the jobs. “You’re traveling in a mobile bunkhouse with other guys. You’re working long days, you miss your family. It is hard to get an American to do it.”

Dungy suspects the current economy is why the Obama administration has made program changes. And with unemployment as high as it is, most politicians aren’t going to speak out against the changes.

Befort says if he could hire Americans, he would. To get foreign workers, he has to pay for visa applications, plane tickets and travel expenses, as well as housing and transportation while they are in the country.

Seeking skilled Americans

Yet, finding Americans with the skills to run expensive machinery or obtain a commercial driver’s license causes some limitations.

Many of the immigrant workers on a custom harvest crew are from countries like South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. They work six months of the year and then go home where harvest season is just beginning in the Southern Hemisphere. In addition, unemployment is extremely high in some countries, such as South Africa — making it lucrative to travel to the United States for work.

Peggy Friesen, who helps her husband, Lyle, run Friesen Harvesting in Meade, Kan., says that most years they have been able to rely on American help to run their operation. However, the process of finding workers isn’t

necessarily easy.

This year, amid the recession, it’s been a little simpler.

“Right now, we have a lot of people out of jobs who want to work,” she says, but adds, “That’s not the case normally.”

Not all, however, are finding Americans that easily, including larger operations that need more help.

Near Alden, Kan., custom harvester Lance Frederick says while he gets most of his workers on J-1 visas — a program that allows workers into the country as part of a cultural exchange or to learn more about the country — about 10 percent are hired under the H-2A program.

He says he does a lot of advertising across the nation to get qualified help. But a nomad’s way of life isn’t for everyone.

“It’s not like we’re not looking in the United States,” he says. He put ads out last fall, he says, and “nobody even

applied.”

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