Firm relies on foreign laborers to put turkeys on your table
OREFIELD, PA. (AP) - There are few experiences more quintessentially American than sitting at the table with family and friends on Thanksgiving Day to dine on roast turkey. And if there is a Jaindl Farms turkey on your table, it likely was made possible by foreign labor.
The family-run Lehigh County institution that traces its roots to the 1930s is Pennsylvania's largest single user of a federal visa program for seasonal agricultural workers.
Jaindl's first objective is to hire locally, company President David Jaindl said. To fill the remaining need, the farm uses the H2A visa program.
That program, which last year brought 134,368 farm workers, mostly from Mexico, into the country, is in flux as the Trump administration prepares to put its stamp on the nation's approach to trade, borders and immigration.
Its use nationally has more than doubled since 2012, according to the State Department, and is growing as farmers worry more about immigration crackdowns.
In 2016, Jaindl Farms requested 59 visas for workers between August and December to "perform a variety of duties related to the production of turkeys," according to documents filed with the U.S. Labor Department.
In 2015, Jaindl Farms accounted for 73 out of 777 total guest workers approved under the program for Pennsylvania, according to the State Department. The massive operation processes more than 750,000 turkeys a year and has about 100 year-round, full-time employees.
In recent years, it has become difficult to find local workers for seasonal agriculture work, Jaindl said. The jobs, which pay $11.66 an hour, involve the "de-beaking and growing of turkeys; feeding, watering and cleaning turkeys to be free of feces and straw; catching, loading and unloading them as well as cleaning and maintaining turkey housing," according to Jaindl Farms' visa application.
Federal law requires advertising the jobs to local workers first. Once the number of openings is established, obtaining the visas is a fairly complicated process, Jaindl said. There is a lot of paperwork to complete and workers must be provided with housing and transportation to and from the farm, he said.
Jaindl houses workers at six sites, according to its visa application. One is called Breeder Camp, a two-bedroom, 28-person bunkhouse. Another, known as Orchard #1, is a three-bedroom mobile home shared by five workers.
The upside, Jaindl said, is that he knows his foreign workers are fully screened and fully documented, and many are experienced, returning year after year.
Overall, it's not a popular program with Pennsylvania farmers, said Mark O'Neill, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. Federal statistics for 2015 show Pennsylvania accounted for less than 1 percent of the total H2A visas issued.
"It's an expensive program," O'Neill said.
Along with transportation and housing, host companies have to provide meals or a kitchen for workers to prepare their own, he said. Shepherding visa applications through the approval process is complicated and often requires legal help for companies that specialize in H2A visas.
In the past, delays in approving visas have jeopardized the harvest for some farmers who depend on the H2A program, he said. And for year-round operations such as mushroom farming, seasonal workers just don't make sense.
The Farm Bureau is working to get the federal government to revamp the program. The group would like approvals granted more quickly and the visas expanded to include year-round work. Workers are currently limited to nine-month assignments.
Those efforts would generally weaken federal oversight and reduce protections for migrant farm workers, said Bruce Goldstein, executive director of Farmworker Justice, a group that looks out for farm worker rights.
Workers in the H2A visa program already are vulnerable to being housed in substandard conditions or being paid lower than market wages, Goldstein said. And if the Labor Department's budget is cut, it will make enforcing the rules designed to protect guest workers even more difficult, he said.
He predicts the Trump administration's focus on deporting undocumented immigrants will make the H2A program more popular.
"Some employers are concerned about immigration enforcement and know a lot of their workers are undocumented," Goldstein said. The U.S. Agriculture Department estimates more than half the farm workers in the U.S. lack proper documentation.
While working conditions "vary wildly," the H2A program offers few real protections for farm workers because they are completely dependent on their employers, said Beth Lyon, a professor at Cornell University Law School and founder of the Farmworker Legal Clinic.
"It's a system that is very easy to exploit for employers who don't want to do the right thing," she said. "The workers have no leverage. Undocumented workers are, ironically, in a better position because at least they they can walk."
Most of the legal protections are there to remedy past abuses, said Cindy Hahamovitch, a University of North Carolina historian who has written several books on farm workers. The housing and transportation requirements, for example, were put in place to stop farmers from charging workers, making them debtors the moment they arrived on the farm.
"Plus, H2A workers are always worried about not getting called back or of getting sent home, so they are less likely to complain about housing, or wage shaving, or the pace of the work, than Americans," Hahamovitch said.
Finding reliable workers
Jaindl Farms wasn't the only agricultural business in the Lehigh Valley participating in the H2A visa program in 2016, federal records show.
The Lehigh Valley Home and Garden Center in Northampton requested three visas for crew leaders. A spokesperson there declined to provide more information. And Subarashii Kudamono in Coopersburg requested 12 for harvesting its gourmet pears. No one there returned a call and email seeking comment.
Several farmers in Schuylkill and Carbon counties also use the program for nursery and greenhouse workers, and Christmas-tree farming, among other ventures.
Bryan MacDonald is one of them. The owner of Pinecrest Tree Farms in Orwigsburg said he started having trouble staffing his tree farm about a decade ago.
"It's reliability," he said. "I don't know what happens, but people who are looking for work don't want to do this kind of work. It's dirty, it's hard, it's wet. it's cold and it's windy. You're slopping around the mud in 40-degree temperatures banging metal nails into a burlap wrap."
The hours can be long, but that's the nature of the business. Customers — whether they are landscape companies or families — want their trees at a specific time.
Local workers would frequently fail to show up at critical times, MacDonald said.
The nine employees he brings from Mexico each year are reliable, hard workers, he said. They live on-site, so they never have any problem getting to work.
"These are not the guys who come across illegally," MacDonald emphasized. "These are not the guys who are committing crimes. These guys are salt of the earth, some of the nicest gentlemen you would ever want to meet. Their focus is work, family and they are very religious. They all have rosaries."
MacDonald said he has many of them in his home for Thanksgiving.
"I've had these guys come as skinny kids scared to death and now they are my senior guys and know every inch of this farm," he said.
With the cost of fertilizer and fuel rising and little room to raise tree prices, in many ways Pinecrest Tree Farms is hooked on the program, he said.
That's one of the many problems with the program cited by Farmworker Justice, which advocates for the rights of agricultural workers.
With its low wage requirements — based on a prevailing wage calculation — and lax oversight, the H2A program has become not a temporary way for farmers to make up for domestic labor shortages but a permanent staffing method.
That depresses the wages of domestic farm workers, said Goldstein, who dismisses the idea that farmers can't find enough U.S. workers to staff their farms. Sometimes it takes higher wages to get better workers, especially when other, less strenuous jobs are out there, he said.
"We believe if there truly was a labor shortage, we would see a rise in the wages of farm workers," Goldstein said. That hasn't happened.
The H2A visa program is a small part of the growing debate over how to balance the need for farm workers with the country's interest in making sure immigration laws are enforced.
"What our farmers want is to make sure we have a legal and adequate workforce to meet everyone's needs," he said.
American farms can't exist without foreign labor of some kind, MacDonald said.
"The reality we are going to have to face as a country, either we import our labor for agriculture, or we start importing our food and our Christmas trees," he said.
H2A visas issued
The number of H2A visas issued for seasonal agricultural workers has more than doubled in the last five years.
Source: State Department.