Agricultural H-2A Employers: How to Manage 4 Key Risks
The H-2A guest worker program is a critical source of labor for many U.S. growers, but it comes with an added burden of regulation and risk. We spoke with Matt Rogers, co-founder and general manager of agricultural labor and service provider AgSocio, about the top risks that H-2A employers face and how his company manages these risks.
“There is a massive amount of regulation and responsibility on an employer [in the H-2A program], And it's a place where many people underperform…I saw from my seat at Whole Foods Market years ago that there's a disconnect between what all the big brands and all the big retailers say they want to see in the labor supply chain and what is the reality.” -Matt Rogers, AgSocio
Risk #1: Recruitment
Growers often use farm labor contractors (FLCs) to supply the labor they need, both domestically and via the H-2A program. But with H-2A, there is often a third player in the mix: a recruiter, based abroad, that the FLC contracts to find workers for the program.
There can be bad actors anywhere in the labor chain, but recruitment risk poses a unique challenge because it can be tough for the grower and even for the FLC to know what’s happening at this geographically distant stage of the process.
Workers finding themselves at the mercy of unethical recruiters is unfortunately common: recruiters may ask for bribes from workers who want a coveted H-2A visa or promise wages and working conditions that don’t reflect reality once workers arrive in the U.S.
AgSocio’s approach to recruiting
When choosing a recruiting partner, don’t just go with the lowest bidder. This is a critical area for due diligence to research past allegations or violations and check references to make sure you choose a partner with an excellent reputation.
At AgSocio, Rogers found a trusted recruiting partner in CIERTO, a nonprofit with a presence in both Mexico and the U.S. “We work with CIERTO because their community-based recruiting approach and transparent process gives us the best chance to avoid the well-known risks in international recruitment and recruit team members who will fit the AgSocio culture and have a successful contract,” Rogers said.
Risk #2: Housing
Employers must provide housing free of charge to H-2A workers, and there are both federal and often state requirements covering housing conditions. These requirements “are not particularly onerous,” according to Rogers, yet many employers fail to meet them, jeopardizing workers’ health and safety while putting their own reputation and operation at risk.
AgSocio’s Approach to Housing
Make sure you understand the federal and state regulations covering worker housing. Assuming you’re in legal compliance, then try a simple test: ask yourself if you would feel safe and comfortable staying in your worker housing facilities. If not, your employees probably feel the same way.
For AgSocio, Rogers sees quality housing not just as a compliance issue, but a competitive advantage: “I think we have some of the best housing in the area here in the Salinas Valley…If you have a place where you can go home and actually rest and you have privacy, and you're safe, and you have your own space, and it's clean, then that's going to make a long stay away from home with a lot of long hours and hard work a lot more enjoyable. And you’ll probably be more productive as a team member if you have that…we see people jumping to us from other companies [thanks to] word of mouth about the conditions of employment, including housing.”
Risk #3: Contract Compliance
As guest workers, H-2A employees might not know their legal rights in a foreign country, have local resources and support networks, or know what to do if something seems wrong. This puts them at an incredibly high risk of fraud and places a responsibility on employers to be vigilant for non-compliance throughout the labor chain, including among their own teams.
According to Rogers, one of the top areas where non-compliance can occur is payroll, wage, and hour compliance: “Are people taking breaks on time, are they taking their meals for the right amount of time…and is the payroll being calculated accurately?” These are all legal issues, and if not, Rogers says, the grower can be financially liable for transgressions of their FLC.
AgSocio’s Approach to Contract Compliance
Workers need to understand the terms of their contract, what they can expect from their job, housing, and transportation conditions, and their legal rights. Then the hard part is creating an atmosphere of trust among the entire team so that if something is wrong, workers and managers alike feel safe bringing the issue up.
“We put a lot of focus on being present and establishing a relationship with everybody,” Rogers said of AgSocio’s H-2A workers. Whenever new workers are onboarded, the AgSocio team tells them that their contract is a “two-way street. We have responsibilities, and you have responsibilities …and we're going to let you know if you are not following through on your responsibilities. You can also let us know if…something is not as it should be. Raise your hand. Let us know so we can fix it for you because we want you to be happy and successful in this contract because that will make us successful.”
Risk #4: Record Keeping and Documentation
If someone flags a problem - for example, incorrect pay or workers not getting their required breaks - you need to know precisely where each worker and supervisor should be and their job at hand. Yet many FLCs use informal tools to track and communicate this, like text messages on personal phones.
AgSocio’s Approach to Record-Keeping and Documentation
AgSocio uses the Ganaz workforce communication platform for all of their communication with the H-2A workforce. “We send our dispatch notice for the next day each evening to the entire crew,” Rogers said, with everyone getting a message about exactly where and when they need to be in the morning and how to get there. “For our admin team, that’s the notification of where everybody’s going. Everybody gets that dispatch [and] can see what’s happening.”
Ganaz offers other technology to help minimize these and other risks associated with pen-and-paper processes. Reach out to our team to learn more.
AgSocio is an agricultural labor and service provider operating in California and Arizona. They help their clients comply and compete in the highly regulated and rapidly evolving agricultural labor market.
They are building a more just, safe, professional, efficient and competitive agricultural employment system to benefit farmers, farmworkers, and the broader food industry.
CIERTO is an international Farm Labor Contractor dedicated to assisting employers with the federal H-2A visa program. They recruit, train, and place experienced workers on farms in the United States. Their mission is to actively develop and maintain a professional, career-oriented, agricultural workforce, committed to returning to farms year after year.