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Michigan Agriculture's Push to Foreign Labor Leaves Migrant Advocates Concerned

Robbie Feinberg/WMUK

Over the past few summers, Michigan farmers have run into a problem. The Hispanic workers they rely on to pick and harvest their crops seem to be disappearing. The shortage has forced farmers to search out out-of-the-box solutions, including a federal visa program for temporary agricultural workers. But neither farmers nor migrant advocates are very happy about the change.

A farm worker shortage

A day on the farm may sound relaxing, but spend a few hours at Lietz Farms in Sodus, near Benton Harbor, and you’ll probably end up exhausted. The constant picking, transporting, packing and shipping requires more than 200 workers at the peak of summer.

So when owner Fred Lietz couldn’t find enough workers a few years ago, it was his worst-case scenario. He left 60 acres of tomatoes rotting on the vine. The total cost: $300,000.

"That was rough! We were thirty percent short on people that year," he says. "And it's just, that was rough." 

Lietz couldn’t take a loss like that again.

"So this past year, we said, you know what? If we're going to keep farming, we're going to have to use the H-2A program."

The H-2A program -- that’s an agricultural labor term that needs a little explanation.

The H-2A visa program was established by the federal Department of Labor to bring in temporary foreign agricultural workers when there aren’t enough in the States. For a bunch of reasons – more education and tighter immigration, to name a few -- fewer migrant workers seem to be coming to Michigan from places like Texas and Florida.

It’s not an unexpected problem. Lietz says over the past 20 years, he started seeing the labor force get more and more undocumented. He started pushing for a federal bill to legalize them, instead of kicking them out.

"And you know, it was always not the right time," Lietz says. "Congress, I don’t think they want to do it because they can push it back to Democrats, to the Republicans, to the president. It's all just a game for them."

So, without anything happening in Washington, and no other real options on the horizon, Lietz and other Michigan farmers are finally saying “yes” to the H-2A program. The total number of authorized H-2A job orders in Michigan skyrocketed this year to almost 2,500. 

Workers on H-2A visas harvesting cucumbers on Fred Lietz's farm in Sodus, Mich.

  That’s still only around five percent of the estimated number of migrant and seasonal farm workers in the state. But it’s about double the number Michigan had last year.

For Lietz, he applied to bring in 110 workers, about half of his workforce. So, problem solved, right? Well, not so fast.

"There's nobody jumping around and happy to do be doing this," says Katie Rasch, who was brought on this year by the Michigan Farm Bureau to oversee its farm labor contracting service, which helps lead Michigan farmers through the H-2A process.

"It's very tedious and it does take a lot on the growers' part to make a lot of changes and file a lot of paperwork," Rasch says. "We're trying to take some of that away from them. But it is a big change. And it's something that they are really only turning to because it's the only option they see."

Paperwork. Deadlines. New expenses and federal regulations on housing and wages. Burdens so large that for years, the Farm Bureau resisted the H-2A program. But after a successful pilot program last year, the Bureau has decided to take a new approach: teaching and training farmers how to use the H-2A program to fill gaps in their workforce.

Worries about domestic workers

But the growth of the H-2A program leaves migrant advocates worried. They’re concerned about what it could mean to farm workers who are already here.

I met one migrant farm worker named Minerva. She wanted to leave out her last name because she’s worried about retaliation.

"Well, I stopped being a migrant for two years because my mom, she was going through cancer," she says. "Chemo, things like that. Then this year, we decided to go back, because we missed her a lot, she's not with us anymore. But we decided to go back to Michigan! And, you know, I like the way we work."

When she arrived at a farm in Hart this year, though, the work wasn’t good. Immediately, she says, she was screamed and yelled at. She’d worked at some good camps, but she says this wasn’t one of them.

"But for them, there’s no best," she says. "I try my best to do good, for my girls and my sister, and we would never have them happy."

They were pushed so hard, she says, that her daughter developed blisters, chapped lips, and got dehydrated from the long days. For almost three months, they pushed through. But the work dried up at the beginning of July. When that happened, she says, it was the foreign workers on H-2A visas who got most of the work that was left. Not domestic workers like her.

"You know, we started noticing that they would work more hours," she says. "Maybe three days. And we would only get one day. And we found out because of the guys who said you know, they don't give you guys hours! I'd go, I know!"

"I do get upset because I come from far away," she says. "They promised us work."

Minerva tried to stay positive. But eventually, she says, it wasn’t worth it. She left.

Daniel Inquilla, one of the managing attorneys with Kalamazoo-based Farmworker Legal Services, says there are good things about the H-2A program. For one thing, it has contracts that spell out specific worker protections.

But, he says, he’s already heard too many stories of domestic workers losing hours. He worries that the H-2A program is a slippery slope that could leave domestic workers at a disadvantage.

So far, though, the state says it’s yet to see many problems come to light. Marcie Ailing, the foreign labor certification officer for Michigan’s Workforce Development Agency, says the only H-2A issues have been isolated. No patterns.

"So I don't think we've had any increase in problems. I'm just not aware of that. I think everything we hear is sort of an isolated, sort of a different concern that someone has expressed," she says. "By the nature of having more H-2A's, there might be a higher volume of those concerns. But it's not an across-the-board issue. So far, we haven't found anything that was of serious issue. That required sanctioning or anything that we're aware of."

Credit Robbie Feinberg/WMUK
Fred Lietz speaking with a worker on his farm in Sodus, Mich.

But it’s not just what may happen to domestic workers that leaves advocates worried. Tom Thornburg is a managing attorney with Farmworker Legal Services. His biggest concern is the growth of out-of-state farm labor contractors. Those are companies that hire workers without a fixed farm site.

Thornburg says the state went from zero out-of-state contractors in 2012 to nine this year, with enough job orders to bring in nearly a thousand H-2A workers. To him, that’s not a good trend.

"So it's a huge proportion of the H-2A workforce now, and it's a significant portion of the problems that we're seeing," Thornburg says. "So I see it as just an extremely dangerous situation, not just for the workers but for the public. Because we really are losing track of where these foreign workers are going, what they're doing when they're up here. That's just not that way that system was intended, designed to work."

"There's no one here in Michigan that we can call up and say, 'Farmer Brown, this is happening, and you're responsible,'" he says.  "Because they're really hired by these foreign, out of state labor contractors. Brought up in buses. And when they're here, they're not housed, typically, on the farmers' farm that they're working on. They're housed in motels, typically."

It’s those motels that worry the state’s Interagency Migrant Services Committee. Earlier this year, the committee sent a letter to the state’s Workforce Development Agency. The committee was concerned about a contractor that applied to bring in workers on H-2A visas.

The contractor wanted its workers to work in Michigan but live in Indiana. That, by itself, isn’t a problem. But the committee also heard reports that this contractor had “double-bunked” its workers in an Indiana hotel last year. That means it housed them two-to-a-bed, which is against the law in Michigan.

The Workforce Development Agency replied to the letter, saying that the federal Department of Labor had investigated the problem, and no findings related to "double-bunking" were issued.

However documents obtained by WMUK show the issue is more complex. According to the documents, the Department of Labor found that the contractor was double-bunking related workers. This wasn’t illegal under an "innkeeper exemption," according to a U.S. Department of Labor spokesman (Clarification: The "innkeeper exemption" is a part of Federal, not Indiana state laws on housing migrant and seasonal farm workers. The U.S. Department of Labor says that applied in this case). In Michigan, the law is clear: in single-sex labor camps, it’s one man to a bed. No double-bunking.

Matthew Wesaw, the director of Michigan’s Department of Civil Rights, says he thinks it’s pretty obvious why the contractor opted for Indiana.

"It’s clear in my opinion the reason they’re housing them out of state is to get away from the better regulations Michigan has to protect the health and dignity of the farm worker," he says. 

When we spoke with the contractor, she told us she simply couldn’t find housing in Michigan, so she had to opt for Indiana. But, she says, she’s planning to stop double-bunking workers next year.

Changes in Michigan, Indiana

The state Workforce Development Agency says it hadn't been given the information regarding "double-bunking," but officials say this was the first incident of its kind. And it’s prompted the agency to create a new procedure. Now, if a contractor wants to have its farm workers work in Michigan but live in Indiana, Michigan will immediately contact Indiana’s Health Department to inspect the housing.

The agency’s Marcie Ailing says Indiana will use different procedures, too.

"In the last few months, we do know that Indiana will be looking at this differently in the future," she says. "And they’ve already, apparently, issued letters to various contractors who’ve housed migrant workers in motels letting them know that there’s a different type of monitoring, much more stringent, that’s going to be going on in Indiana."

And despite these incidents, Ailing says the H-2A program is actually making farmers be more consistent.

"This kind of forces them to do that," Ailing says. "They do more tracking. They're accountable! And any of us, at the state level, the federal level, can come in at any point and ask them questions or look into what they're doing. They have to show us that they're doing it. "

Wesaw says Michigan has done a lot to make things safer for migrant workers here. Fixing this would keep it that way.

"I think for the State of Michigan, it is critical," he says. "Migrant seasonal farm workers provide a tremendous service to this state in making our products available to market. And they deserve nothing less than to be treated with dignity, and their health needs to be the best it can be, based on the best of what Michigan provides. That is the sole issue, for me."

"[Farm workers] deserve nothing less than to be treated with dignity and their health needs to be the best it can be, based on the best of what Michigan provides. That is the sole issue, for me."

Farming's future

So where does this leave the future of the H-2A visa program? Many in agriculture are still looking for other solutions, including the Michigan Farm Bureau. The Farm Bureau's Katie Rasch says her organization wants to make sure it's keeping domestic workers in jobs while also filling in vacancies. But Rasch says she still expects the program to at least double in the near future.

As for Fred Lietz, the farmer with the rotting tomatoes? He says the jury’s still out on just how successful the program will be for him. But knowing his workforce is legal means he can finally relax a little bit.

"I'm sleeping a lot better this year, okay? That's the bottom line," he says. "It costs a lot more money. But I'm sleeping a lot better."

This is the second part of a three-part series on the changing lives of Hispanic workers in Michigan. You can hear the entire series here.

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