New guest worker rules yet to be tested
MANATEE — Changes intended to streamline the controversial guest-worker program went into effect just days before Barack Obama took the oath of office as president.

Historically, growers and farmers have found the H-2A guest-worker program to be complicated by red tape, making it a lengthy and an expensive process to hire foreign workers.

Others believe that because the program is put together by people who don’t know the business, it doesn’t meet the needs of agriculture.

Billy Heller, chief operations officer for Pacific Tomato Growers, said the company decided not to use the program until its future is decided. Even though the new regulations have just become effective, it’s hard to tell how the program may change under the Obama administration.

“One thing about farming is it takes flexibility,” he said. “It just doesn’t fit what we do.”

Designed to encourage more farmers and growers to use the program, the new regulations speed up the process, decreasing reliance on unauthorized workers and protecting the worker’s rights, according to the regulations in the Federal Register. About 75,000 foreign guest workers are granted visas annually through the H-2A guest-worker program.

Less than 2 percent of citrus growers in Florida use the H-2A program because of the expense and complexity of the program, said Andrew Meadows, spokesman with the Florida Citrus Mutual in Lakeland.

“Some of these rules help a little bit, but they certainly don’t go far enough,” he said. “The real way were going to be able to solve this is to pass comprehensive immigration reform.”

It is difficult to tell whether changes made to streamline the process will be effective, said Walter Kates, a labor relations official for Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

“We’ll see what happens. It has yet to be tested,” Kates said.

The new regulations are supposed to allow for a more timely arrival of the workers and a longer recruitment period when American workers are not available for the job.

A negative aspect is that the timeline to file the job offer is 75 days ahead of time. Farmers can’t always know how many workers they will need at a certain time. Few workers are going to hang around to wait for a job, either, Kates said.

“Like any new regulation, there are some good points and bad points. It’s sort of a mixed bag,” he said.

Jose’ Estigarribia, an attorney with Kallins, Little and Delgado in Palmetto, said the new regulations should help speed up the process and prevent fraud.

The new regulations require agricultural companies to file through e-Verify employment eligibility, which enables workers to more easily change employers.

Hopefully, the e-Verify system has been improved with fewer kinks than previously. A few years ago, another guest-worker program used the system, but the first several thousand petitions that would have been approved were denied because of technicalities.