By AMANDA LOVIZA
Glasgow Daily Times
Local tobacco farmers feel like they’re being penalized for using legal foreign workers to help them during the tobacco season.
“We’re trying to do it right … and we’re the ones who are getting punished,” said Al Pedigo, who owns a 200-acre tobacco farm in Fountain Run.
Pedigo is one of many local farmers who are part of the H-2A program, which allows farmers to apply for permission from the government to bring foreign workers across the border to work seasonal jobs cutting, stripping and housing tobacco. Pedigo said he is thankful for the H-2A program, but the regulations implemented by the government in 2008 and again in 2010 have made it more difficult and much more costly for farmers.
In the last year, the minimum required wage rate for an H-2A worker has increased from $7.40/hour to $9.48/hour. The farmer is also required to pay that same wage to any U.S. worker on the farm. On top of the wage increase, extra fees for the farmers have increased. Where a farmer used to pay for his H-2A workers to get from the U.S. border to the farm, he now has to pay for the workers to get from their home to the farm. Ricky Gray said last year he paid his local H-2A agent about $2,000, and this year he is paying him $3,400.
Gray, who has been raising tobacco for about 30 years and has been part of the H-2A program for the last 15 years, said the Department of Labor officials seem to think the wage and fee increase will both encourage farmers to use U.S. workers and encourage U.S. workers to apply for the jobs. But there just aren’t U.S. workers who want the tobacco jobs, he said.
“They think if we pay them enough, they’ll come. And they’re badly mistaken,” Gray said.
Pedigo said that in the last five years, he had not had a single U.S. worker show more than a passing interest in a job in the tobacco fields. Most U.S. workers are not willing to work the hours that tobacco requires, such as working on a Saturday if it rained during the week. The government doesn’t seem to understand that U.S. workers don’t want to deal with tobacco’s physical demands or the demands on their time.
“I feel like the government is discouraging us from using these workers, and I’m sure they are, but there just aren’t other workers to do this physical, seasonal work,” Pedigo said.
With the new referral system implemented this year, Pedigo now has five U.S. workers in his fields. They have been working fine, he said, but two did not show up for work on Friday and did not call. Maybe a couple of the workers will work out, but he doesn’t have high hopes that they will last through the peak of the season.
“I don’t think they’ll be able to do the work,” he said. “Maybe they can.”
Gray has never had U.S. workers either, and in 15 years of using H-2A workers, he has only had two not finish the season.
“They come to work,” Gray said. “If I don’t have work for them, they’re not happy.”
Gray has the same H-2A workers come to his farm every year for the tobacco season, and he said they have become friends as well as employees.
“My guys, they love working for me,” he said. “I’m very close with all my workers … I think a lot of these guys and they depend on me as much as I depend on them.”
When asked if his H-2A workers would work for less than the required $9.48/hour, Gray’s response was, “Oh, Lord yes.”
Gray said his pay rate per stick of tobacco keeps him above the required minimum wage, but he and Pedigo both said that the $9.48 is more than it should be during parts of the season. And since the workers make more during the season’s peak, a lower wage during the slow part of the season would not hurt the workers. Gray pointed out that it doesn’t make sense that the wage requirement increased when the price of tobacco did not.
“We’re not getting any more for our product,” he said. “We get paid the same as last year.”
Another key component of the new H-2A regulations is the paperwork. Gray said he has at least an hour of paperwork each night, and Pedigo said he spends five to six hours a week on paperwork. When applying for H-2A each year, Pedigo said it takes him about an hour in paperwork per employee, which in his case means 22. But despite the time commitment, Pedigo said he does feel like the paperwork is helpful in making sure farmers don’t fall behind.
“Now that we’re doing it, it’s really made us better, more efficient …” Pedigo said. “It seems like a lot when you start, but you make it work.”
Gray said he stays on top of his paperwork, but it concerns him that if he misses something in all those papers, it could lead to big fines for him.
“I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t understand a lot of the stuff I read,” he said.
According to Karen Garnett, assistant district director of the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor, one missed document could lead to $1,500 in fines per H-2A worker. Garnett led an information session for farmers in Glasgow on April 19, and she quoted a long list of requirements for farmers. But Gray said he has never seen the form she was quoting.
All the requirements of the new H-2A regulations, with the threat of fines constantly looming over farmers’ heads, make local tobacco farmers like Pedigo and Gray feel like they are being punished when they are trying to keep up with their piles of paperwork. But Pedigo and Gray agree that they need the H-2A program to continue to raise tobacco.
“If it hadn’t been for the H-2A program, I’da quit raising tobacco a long time ago,” Gray said.
“I think the H-2A program is good and it affords farmers the opportunity to get dependable workers …” Pedigo said. “I don’t think I could grow tobacco now without it, or at least not at the scale that I’m trying to grow it.”