Changes in guest worker program now suspended

The future is uncertain for a guest-worker program that legally brings agricultural workers into the United States and onto Western Slope farms.

New regulations for the H2A guest-worker program went into effect Jan. 17 but will be suspended for nine months beginning June 29. No clear guidance has been handed down from the federal government for what the H2A regulations will look like after the suspension, said Larry Lemmons, Colorado Department of Labor and Employment programs manager.

For now, H2A rules have simply gone back to the way they were last year, before federal officials decided to change the program to shorten the application period for workers and allow employers to offer less pay.

Officials said the changes would discourage farmers from employing illegal workers, according to the New York Times. The United States Department of Agriculture estimated 1.2 million agriculture workers were hired in the United States in 2007.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis announced the suspension of the rules after complaints filed from numerous organizations that new regulations allowed employers to pay $1 to $2 less an hour for the same work they performed the year before in the program.

Bruce Talbott, orchard manager of Talbott Farms in Palisade, employs 21 H2A workers from Palisade and one from Honduras. He pays his workers $9.42 an hour, although the new rules would have allowed him to pay $7.50 to $8 an hour, he said.

Talbott said he would prefer the new rules, not for monetary reasons but because he wouldn’t have to start the H2A application process as early as he has the past three years. He starts the process in August or September for workers he’ll need in February.
Talbott estimated a mere

2 percent of farmers use the H2A program, because it’s “cumbersome.”

But, he said he’d rather have legal workers he can count on, even if he has to pay for worker travel costs and guarantee pay for three-quarters of the contract period.

Staying with H2A is more expensive, “but we get good guys,” Talbott said. “We’ve worked our way to dependency with these people.”

Lemmons said new rules have pros and cons. One con is the increased cost of advertising.

Old rules required employers to advertise farm jobs in local newspapers and with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment before going through with the H2A application.

New rules had the same requirement but asked employers to advertise in newspapers in neighboring states as well.

Lemmons added the advertisements with his department are attracting more takers than ever before. He used to get a handful of applications for farm work that was often
passed on to H2A workers.

“Now, we’re literally getting hundreds in some cases,” he said.


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