Thinking about hiring H-2A farmworkers? Advice from Blue River farm
With continued labor challenges in U.S. agriculture, many growers are turning to the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Worker Program for the first time. In our last article, Why More Growers are Hiring H-2A Farmworkers, we provided an overview of the H-2A program and why seasoned growers believe it will continue to expand. In this article, we dive into this topic with Tonya Forster, Business Manager at Blue River Legacy Farms, as she shares her learnings from implementing an H-2A program at her farm for the first time.
Why Blue River opted to join the H-2A program
Nestled between the orchards and lakes of eastern North Carolina, Blue River is a blueberry farm that has carried on the honored tradition of progressive and sustainable blueberry cultivation for over 50 years. Like so many other growers, Tonya turned to the H-2A program this year because Blue River was “not being able to find enough local labor” in or around Elizabethtown, North Carolina.
Blue River is not alone. With labor shortages continuing to plague our industry, many growers are opting into the current H-2A program to alleviate the burden of unreliable domestic recruitment. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, estimates that about 18,000 farms participated in the H-2A program, directly or indirectly, there were 275,000 jobs certified to be filled by H2-A workers, and H2-A were employed at about 87,000 sites across the US
How to Hire H-2A Workers
Before beginning the H-2A journey as an employer, growers can decide either to hire workers directly or go through a Farm Labor Contractor (FLC). Farms often use FLCs to provide H-2A labor - FLCs accounted for 44 percent of H-2A jobs certified in 2020 - because they manage activities such as recruiting and visas. Of the top 10 employers of H-2A workers, six of them are FLCs.
However, for Blue River, Tonya said, “after weighing out the pros and cons of both, direct vs [Farm Labor Contractor], [direct] was the best choice for our farm.” Tonya adds, “We wanted to ensure we had the number of workers needed and oversee their housing, pay, and work experience.”
First Impressions of the H-2A Program
Overall, Tonya shared that Blue River “had a great experience with H-2A,” and they will be expanding the program in 2023. Here are some examples of how Blue River implemented its H-2A program and what they’ve learned.
Part of the conditions for joining the program is providing housing for H-2A workers. Building housing complexes takes time, resources, and development. With harvest already upon them, Blue River opted to settle workers into a hotel near their property next to White Lake. “This year, there were hotels which (the workers) liked. We live on the lake, so [H-2A farmworkers] could go swimming in the evenings. They had a really nice setup.”
Per the U.S. Wage and Hour Division, Employers must provide housing at no cost to H-2A workers. As in Blue River’s position, when no accommodation yet existed on their property, businesses are tasked with acquiring rental accommodations and covering the cost. In addition to housing, each worker is provided with three meals per day, at a specific price threshold managed by the Department of Labor. If meals cannot be provided, farms must furnish cooking and kitchen facilities so workers can prepare their own meals free of charge.
Tonya was the main point of contact for Blue Rivers' first H-2A crew when they arrived from Mexico. She was immediately impressed as she began working with them directly. “I feel like the H-2A farmworkers were more aware and understood the onboarding process more than I expected. They were engaged and asked questions throughout.” When analyzing her two workforces, Tonya concluded, “I didn’t have like, ‘Oh! The H-2A was so much harder than the domestic [moment],’ I had it the opposite way.”
Another topic of concern for Tonya, and many other H-2A employers getting started with the H-2A program, was wondering how the new workforce would gel with their new working environment. With workers coming into a new country and working with a new group of people, there are uncontrollable variables that can be stressful for a farm. Tonya’s experience was once again above expectations when working with tenured H-2A employees.
“The ones that had worked H-2A before were very thankful and felt like they could tell this was our first time. And they were very patient, and they were nice. And we had them in a really good situation. So I feel like they would tell the other ones, ‘you guys have no idea, they're being very nice to us.’”
Blue River left a great impression on the H-2A crew. “They all want to come back,” Tonya said. “They’ve asked if they could come back.”
When asked to reflect on what resonated with her most about the program after the season was over, Tonya commented that it was the “fun stuff” that made the biggest impact. “I'm trying to speak Spanish, [that would] crack them up. They would get tickled at me. When it was paycheck time, and they were happy to see me because, obviously, I'm the pay lady. Just building those bonds and getting to know some of them, they're showing me their kids, and hearing their stories was really nice.”
Obstacles Blue River faced
Although Tonya’s experience was a very positive and rewarding one, it was not without its challenges. Tonya documented a particular incident with payroll that transpired after the H-2A crew arrived. “We really strive not to have checks,” Tonya explained; Blue River opts not to issue paychecks and instead has its workforce on direct deposit.
Faced with the dilemma, Tonya first sought guidance from her payroll company. “[They] had told me I could just go get a debit card, and then they get paid automatically.” So, after hours, Tonya and one of the crews went to a local store to purchase pre-paid cards. “We had to go to a [supermarket], and they were all buying their cards, and I was paying for them, and we’re in there with all 20 of them trying to do it. They’re all tired, they’re frustrated, and rightfully so. I felt awful about that.”
Tonya quickly realized that this process for obtaining and assigning pre-paid debit cards was long and cumbersome. “I was in a really bad spot when we started our H-2A [program] we were not able to pay them or get them checks—and I researched and researched.”
Then, Tonya discovered the Ganaz MasterCard® Payroll Card program. Designed for agriculture, it works for both H-2As and local employees, allowing cardholders to monitor transactions, receive paystubs, and even send remittances - all through their mobile phone without downloading an app, email account, or complicated passwords.
Ganaz assisted in getting paycards out to Tonya immediately. “We needed [payroll cards] really quick, and Ganaz got them here. I think we got everything done in a week! I mean, it was amazing. I think you guys moved some mountains!”
Being able to pivot in the moment helped Tonya regain the trust of her workforce. “[...] When Ganaz comes, and it was such a quick experience [deploying the payroll card] then, they started feeling trust more. I think at the beginning, they didn’t feel trust … so I had to build that trust with them. So that was a good learning lesson.”
What Blue River will be doing differently next year
Recently, the Department of Labor released sweeping changes to the H-2A program rules, which take effect in November. The aim of these changes is to “strengthen worker protections” as well as update the program and its processes. These updates include many changes to housing and hiring practices, providing opportunities for oversight as well as removing gray areas between FLCs providing H-2A labor and the corresponding farms. As these new guidelines were released after our interview with Tonya, they were not factored into our discussions.
Increased protections, in turn, will require additional infrastructure from farms like Blue River, but providing a good experience for workers was something they were looking to do from the beginning.
Blue River plans on developing H-2A housing next year, and Tonya is putting together a welcome plan. “I’m trying to put in an orientation, a welcome packet, and a checklist, so they understand [how things are]. I couldn’t do it last year because I didn’t even know that I needed it.”
Tonya hopes the orientation packet will help level-set with her new employees as well as provide required onboarding and safety training. Additionally, Tonya plans on sharing educational videos, hosted and curated by Ganaz, that can be easily shared with those who have never used a debit, credit, or payroll card before. Tonya recalled that PIN numbers were the most difficult to adopt. “I don’t know why that confused them, but it did.” Later recognizing that the use of debit and credit cards may be a foreign concept in some remote parts of the world. She also commented that next year they will designate a dedicated H-2A supervisor to collaborate with her and manage the team.
Advice for employers considering H-2A for the first time
When asked to provide advice to other employers taking similar steps with their business, Tonya focused on the importance of taking an empathetic approach.
“Step back for a minute and try to put yourself in their position; they’re in a foreign country, you need to make sure that you take care of them, make them feel like they’re at home and they’re here working—and the better you build that [empathy]—they’re going to do a good job for you.”
With Blue River’s season already finished, their plan is to increase their operations next year up to “about 80” including 50 H-2As. Having a robust and supportive partner in Ganaz to handle their Paycards has helped Tonya handle difficult situations in stride. When an issue did arise from their third-party payroll system, Ganaz was there to help. “One of the biggest things that resonated with me is when we did have the pay problem [issue with payroll provider], you guys went into action. You guys were calling [our farmworkers] individually to let them know there was a problem. My boss, who is hard to impress—that impressed him as well ... There is no other company that would do that.”
With a focus on providing a premium support experience to farmworkers, Ganaz provides an in-house cardholder service team based in Mexico. Cardholders are greeted in Spanish, and our bilingual staff is able to assist them with questions in the language that is most comfortable for them.
Just like when it comes to her H-2A Workers, Tonya believes any good partnership starts with the fundamental building block of trust.
“I deal with a lot of companies that don’t do what they say they’re going to do. Ganaz does exactly what [they] say they’re going to do and more, and that is key. You do not worry if it’s going to happen; if you guys say it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. I really am a believer in you guys, and I think you guys go above and beyond.”
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