With more than 20 million Americans unemployed as the economy came to a standstill during shelter in place, one industry that never stopped was agriculture. Food production has been deemed an essential activity, and has carried on with some adaptations, like masks and physical distancing protocols.
That led Linda Scaroni Rossi and David Scaroni, an aunt-nephew team at the family-run ag labor contractor Fresh Harvest, to think they might get domestic applicants for farmworker positions this year. Last year, they hired some 6,000 workers on H-2A visas, temporary agricultural visas, to work on farms all over the western U.S. And they are on track to do so again.
“The fact of the matter is Americans will not do this job,” Linda says.
Before issuing an H-2A visa, the U.S. Department of Labor requires an employer to post a job for domestic applicants first; for $14.77/hour, the rate set by the DOL, there’s a long list of jobs in the Monterey Bay region, from working in spinach to lemons. This season, Fresh Harvest has gotten one domestic job applicant, a man from Texas. He was hired, but never showed up to work.
“The problem is, everybody lost their job but we are further separated from the agrarian society of our history,” says David, VP of operations. “It was different in the Great Depression 100 years ago. Now, you have this massive disconnect, and people think the bag of romaine was grown in the back of the grocery store.”
They estimate that by the time they’ve met other H-2A requirements – to provide transportation to and from Mexico, lodging in the U.S., and kitchens or some food via a caterer – the company ends up spending $25-$30/hour. Even if they paid that rate, David expects they still wouldn’t get domestic applicants: “It’s tough, physical, specialized labor.”