In today’s world, where less than 1% of the population has direct ties to agriculture, farms must rely on foreign laborers who come to the U.S. through the H-2A Guest Worker Visa Program.

In a recent webinar, Caylin Gwise, foreign labor and agriculture specialist with the Division of Immigrant Policies and Affairs of the New York State Labor Department, discussed how to successfully apply for this temporary worker program, which provides help when farms need it most, such as fall harvests.

However, there’s an extremely important caveat: Foreign workers may only be hired when sufficient domestic help isn’t available.

Also, the work such people do must be agricultural in nature, full time (at least 35 hours per week) and temporary in nature. So the program is quite often used by fruit and vegetable growers who need help bringing in crops, and quite often workers return to the same farm year after year.

But dairies, a non-traditional use of H-2A workers, have also been successful in obtaining such help by following rules and guidelines correctly. This can be extremely valuable in this era, when many Americans aren’t interested in the physical demands and long hours required of farm work.

Two examples describe the types of jobs H-2A workers might do on dairies. They are:

• Performing general winter maintenance, snow removal, de-ice and repair manure/water pipes and bunker silos, repair/maintain equipment.

• Helping from May to November when the workload is especially heavy with hay harvesting and calving, as calves are usually born during this period rather than in sub-zero winter weather.

“Dairies have been successful in applying for H-2A workers because they’ve been able to show they have seasonal need,” Gwise said.

However, they can only do the duties listed on the job order.

“If you bring in workers to harvest grain, they can’t milk cows,” she said.

Also, they can only work for the approved employer, not neighboring or nearby other farms. However, joint orders or orders with multiple employers are possible. These must have similar crops, such as multiple vineyards sharing workers.

But it’s important to remember that with joint cooperation and convenience comes joint liability.

H-2A workers have also proven valuable on horse farms and other types of livestock farm with a variety of jobs such as:

• Mowing, picking rocks and maintaining fields, fixing fences and buildings, spreading manure in fields piled up from winter, using skidsteers to clean barns, stack hay and straw for winter supplies.

• Horse breeding. Seasonal employment begins in April and ends in September while horses are bred, birthed and weaned. Assist with caring for brood mares, with delivery of foals and administering vaccinations to foals.

• On dairy sheep farms, assist with seasonal milking; work with flock husbandry, care and feeding of dairy flock, starting with lambing in late winter and ending when milking stops in late fall.

Under certain circumstances, employers may apply for H-2A guest worker extensions. For a short-term extension of less than two weeks, farms must apply directly to the Department of Homeland Security.

But in some situations, longer extensions might be needed for things beyond the farm’s control such as unexpected bad weather or an unusually high bumper crop. In this event applications must be made to the federal Labor Department’s Chicago National Processing Center, supported in writing with documentation.

The two most common types of H-2A workers requested are farm workers and laborers involved with crops, requiring three months of experience; and agricultural equipment operators who must have six months of experience.

To successfully apply for such help, employers should provide specific details about the type of work they expect to be done. Vague or very lengthy descriptions, including too many duties, aren’t recommended.

Applications should be clear, concise and to the point. The longer the application, the longer it takes to be reviewed and approved.

Gwise provided several other considerations for both applying to and complying with the H-2A program.

They are:

• Under reporting of hours. Employers should make every effort to list accurate hours.

• Employer provided housing must be inspected and approved at least 32 days prior to employer’s date of need.

• Workers may not be charged for broken, damaged or missing tools/equipment. They may not be charged for damage to housing.

• Workers must be paid weekly or bi-weekly.

For more information about the H-2A program, including getting started with applications, go to foreignlaborcert.doleta.gov/.

Paul Post is a freelance writer in eastern New York. He can be reached at paulpost@nycap.rr.com.

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