Farming, tech companies struggle with labor shortages, want immigration reform

They say they can't fill jobs with U.S. hires
Posted at 9:20 AM, Jul 15, 2016

Dan Weeden looks out at 1,000 acres of planted blueberry, blackberry and strawberry fields, some that date back 26 years. “At the peak of the harvest we’ll have 500 (employees) on the farm. But in our processing side we’ll have another 250-300,” he said. “So we’ll have close to 800 and up to as many as 1,000 during the peak.”

That is, if he can find the workers.

“During the recent strawberry season we were the only farm I know that got every worker they needed,” said Weeden, who is the CEO of Sakuma Brothers Farms in Washington state. “In 2011 and 2012 we left a lot of our crop in the field and that’s happened numerous times over the years.”

A third-generation, family-owned berry farm, Sakuma Brothers is only one of many farms outside of Seattle and across the country that is experiencing a labor shortage, primarily because fewer Mexicans are now crossing the border illegally to fill the jobs, and farmers say not enough U.S. workers are available to make up the difference.

Drive 70 miles south of the Sakuma Brothers farm into the heart of Seattle and there’s a different industry facing its own version of a labor crisis.

Major technology companies such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft with headquarters or major divisions in Seattle and its Redmond suburb have long lists of jobs that need to be filled posted on their websites. And because of rapid growth, they say they increasingly are having to look for qualified workers outside the country.

“The problem is in the U.S., the tech sector is growing topsy. And it’s probably one of the fastest growing economic segments in the U.S. The problem is we don’t … educate enough (science, technology, engineering and math) folks,” said Dave Ware, an immigration lawyer in Seattle. “In the U.S. we don’t have enough natives who are interested in going into those areas.”

These two industries’ labor challenges point to one of the hottest issues in the presidential and congressional elections this year: immigration. For some people, immigration is all about jobs – filling them with foreign workers or losing them to foreign workers. For others, attacks such as the one in San Bernardino have made it a topic about terrorism and keeping the country safe by clamping down on immigrants.

This year there have been a lot of speeches by a lot of politicians about immigration reform, but there hasn’t been much progress on legislation in Washington, D.C., for a long time, and nobody is expecting anything to happen soon.

Where are the U.S. workers?

Burr Mosby, who owns an organic vegetable farm, says it’s hard to find U.S. workers who want to do farm work. (Photo shot for Scripps News by Matt Lutton/Boreal Collective)

It’s a common belief, if not a fear, that Mexican immigrants are flooding across the border and taking jobs away from Americans. Donald Trump has seized upon that belief and called for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. His proposal gets cheers at rallies, despite statistics showing the number of illegal immigrants crossing the southern border is at an all time low.

A Pew Research Center report in November 2015 found that illegal immigrants from Mexico living in the U.S. has dropped by a million since 2007, and data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the number of new immigrants crossing the border is down by two thirds, at 240,000 annually. The number peaked in 2000 at 875,000.

The number has dropped because of stricter border enforcement that began under the George W. Bush administration, plus Mexico’s economy is stronger and generating more jobs and there has been a decrease in births, said Jeanne Batalova, senior policy analyst at Migrant Policy Institute, an independent think tank.

Farmers across the country were some of the first to witness the reality of fewer illegal Mexicans. Between 2002 and 2012, the number of new field and crop workers crossing into the U.S. to work on farms fell by 75 percent, according to a 2015 report by the Partnership for a New American Economy titled “A Vanishing Breed.” That’s a huge problem when you consider that about 70 percent of the U.S. farm workforce is made up of Latino workers who are either undocumented or provide false documents to work, according to data provided by the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

In the short term, the tight labor often means lost profit from crops left to rot in the fields because they aren’t picked in time. Sakuma Brothers left almost a million pounds of berries in the fields at its lowest point in 2011 and 2012. In the long term though, studies also have found that lacking labor can result in fewer crops planted and therefore less available produce and vegetables in supermarkets, which can mean higher retail prices for consumers, and less over-all capital flowing into the economy from the agriculture sector.

Many in the industry believe it could result in a major disruption for one of the country’s most vital industries. On a daily basis U.S. farmers are weighing the benefits of shifting from labor-demanding fruits and vegetables to grains, which can be planted and harvested with machines. Both moves could have lasting effects by permanently cutting jobs in agriculture and possibly pushing the country to rely more heavily on foreign-grown produce.

Farmers say the biggest issue is that American workers have been unwilling to fill the open positions. Between 2002 and 2014, U.S.-born workers offset less than 3 percent of the decline in Mexican field and crop labor, the Partnership for a New American Economy study found.

“You’ll always hear that argument, that it’s taking away from American jobs. And I can tell you that at any farm in Washington State, if 20 people came in here and they were Americans, they would have a job tonight by 4:35. But they won’t do it. In bad times, nobody came here,” said Burr Mosby, a first generation farmer who owns a small family farm south of Seattle that grows vegetables such as squash, zucchini, rhubarb, leeks and beets.

Sakuma Brothers offers free housing to their pickers as an incentive to travel to work on their farm. Each comes with a bed and a mini kitchen. The farm's CEO believes the perk is one of the main reasons why Sakuma has been able to get all of the workers it needs in the past few years. (Photo shot for Scripps News by Matt Lutton/Boreal Collective)

Mosby, 57, currently has 60 open spots at his farm. He said Americans don’t like farm work in part because of the schedule and time commitment. Pickers work seasonally when the crops need to be planted, which means they work through rain and hot temperatures. And when it’s picking season—from dawn to dusk.

The pay might not be attractive either. The average hourly wage for a farm picker between 2009 and 2010 was $9.42, according to a U.S. Department of Labor report. However wages vary greatly depending on how long a worker has been with a farm, and many get paid by the pounds picked.

“When we were at the lowest point, when we were around 2008, 2009, 2010, I think we got maybe four Americans who came out and applied for jobs. Four,” Mosby said. “Most of these people they would work from half a day to maybe a day or two and quit.”

Instead, he says his U.S. workers eventually left to take mining jobs or positions at a local casino—jobs that offer benefits and a year-round schedule.

Most farmers have the opportunity to tap into an established seasonal worker visa called an H-2A if they can prove their labor shortages. Under H-2A, they must pay for getting the Mexican workers from the border to the farm and back, plus provide them with housing. Farmers also say that tight border security makes it difficult to get even approved H-2A workers into the U.S.

“I think tightening up on border security has hurt us because it’s not as easy for workers to come in and out of the country. So, we definitely support border security, but it has its challenges,” said Kathleen Heron Johnson, director of government affairs at the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. “We just need a program that works so that the border can be secure but we also have the workers we need.”

Sakuma Brothers tried using the H-2A in 2011 at the height of its labor shortage but the company quickly experienced an unforeseen backlash.

“To some groups it looked like we were bringing in labor from the outside to replace labor that was already here,” Weeden said. “And the fact of the matter is that there wasn’t enough labor that was already here to deal with it.”

Some U.S. workers who worked side by side with the immigrant laborers at Sakuma Brothers complained because they didn’t receive the free housing that the H-2A workers were given. They also began efforts to form a union and pushed for higher wages, according to the Familias Unidas por la Justicia union website.

Sakuma Brothers responded by unveiling an opportunity for its U.S. workers to earn higher wages and built more housing for them, Weeden said. The company also stopped using the H-2A program entirely and now relies on the lure of free housing to recruit workers.

Remaining world players

Major technology companies in the Seattle area, such as Microsoft, have long lists of jobs that need to be filled. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Tech companies in the United States say success is the result of innovation and hiring the right employees—regardless of citizenship.

For them immigration reform is a necessity and it starts with changing the current program that allows companies to hire high-skilled foreign workers under the H-1B visa program, says Todd Schulte, president of Fwd.us, a group started by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to push for changes in immigration laws.

The H-1B program currently allows 85,000 high-skilled workers into the U.S. on a lottery system every year. But compared to the growing tech industry that in 2015 added 200,000 jobs and now employs more than 6.7 million people, the number of workers who receive a visa is negligible, says Dave Ware, who frequently works with tech companies to bring in foreign workers with temporary H-1B visas.

“The H-1B program was started in 1990. In 1990, the Cold War was still going on,” Schulte said. “Immigration is so critical for the tech sector, the idea that it’s governed by something that pre-dates the World Wide Web is incredibly outdated.”

Fwd.us helped introduce a bill to Congress in 2012 that aimed to boost border security, help immigrants in the U.S. illegally get citizenship, and increase the number of H-1B visas available to foreign workers. It passed in the Senate but never made it to the House floor for a vote.

Farmers are similarly trying to change the current H-2A program. They want a system that is more flexible with their growing seasons so they don’t have to pay workers to be there when there’s no work to be done. To fix that, many are calling for a transferable system, where workers are allowed to move freely from farm to farm, finding work when needed. Currently that isn’t a legal option.

But both groups are experiencing stalemates and both blame politics.

“I think the ISIS thing has really changed everything right?” Weeden said. He said he doesn’t think the concern about terrorism is irrational but that it does make the debate purely about immigration policy and “not about the economy.”

Dan Weeden, CEO of Sakuma Brothers berry farm in Washington state, surveys a crop of blue berry bushes. In 2011 and 2012 the farm left crops in the field because of a labor shortage. (Photo shot for Scripps News by Matt Lutton/Boreal Collective)

He emphasized that the people he has employed posed no threat, “They’re good people. I’m not worried about them. They’re here to work and provide for their family. … They’ve got kids to raise. They’ve got dinner to keep on the table at night. “

Ware is more blunt when he discusses what he thinks is responsible for the resistance to H-1B reform. “There is a strong undercurrent in Congress, a general anti-immigrant undercurrent that really knows no bounds, that just doesn’t want more immigrants period,” he said.

Donald Trump says he is opposed to most visa programs, but has specifically targeted the H-1B program. He said in a statement released in March that “the H-1B program is neither high-skilled nor immigration: these are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay.”

In contrast, Hillary Clinton has proposed a plan to automatically grant Green Cards to foreign students who earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math in the U.S.

Trump isn’t alone in his views. Hal Salzman, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, argues that claims of labor shortages are hard to back up with any real numbers—pointing to the fact that many of the open jobs at tech companies don’t require a computer science, mathematics or engineering background.

Salzman and others say that the real reason tech companies want to hire immigrants is because they can pay them less than they would have to pay U.S. workers.

“That’s stated on the record (to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission),” Salzman said. “Any number of studies have actually looked at pay rates and we cite them and we did our own analyses to show a substantial saving by hiring H-1B. But that’s also what they say. They say [to the SEC] ‘if we couldn’t hire H-1B our labor costs would go up.’”

Schulte of Fwd.us says companies take advantage of H-1B savings because it’s allowed under the law, which he says is archaic and allows for that loophole.

“When Congress can’t update a program after nearly two decades, people are going to take advantage of it,” Schulte said. “It’s not a program that is meant to substitute the American workers.”

Ware says he’s not shocked that tech companies, which typically lean Democrat, are struggling to pass immigration reform in a Republican controlled Congress, but does find it telling that farmers have not had more success.

“Farms have probably the strongest lobby in favor of immigration reform of any group in the U.S. …  the farmers of course are you know, salt of the earth. They tend to vote very conservatively and, you know, it’s hard for people to question their need,” he said. “But again just because of generalized gridlock in Congress it’s been like, even getting farmers this little piece of almost nothing has been very, very difficult.”

Stuck at a standstill

Neither farmers nor tech businesses have any illusions about change coming soon, yet both fear what will happen if one doesn’t ultimately come in time.

“No longer is it a situation where the U.S. can be laissez faire knowing that good workers will come because now there are a lot more players in the global market,” Batalova said. “We’re losing workers to other countries, that clearly is happening.”

On the farms, owners worry not only about their livelihood, but what Americans will do if they have to decrease their yields year after year.

“I’m a farmer. We need help. We feed America. That’s what we do. So I mean our hands are tied because we don’t have the hands to go out and help harvest and maintain those crops,” said Mosby of Mosby Farms. “So when you get something in a can, a bag, a box or frozen, there’s been some Hispanic worker or migratory worker that has picked that rather than an American.”

Miranda Green is the DecodeDC.com politics reporter, and is based in the Scripps News Washington Bureau. You can contact her at miranda.green@scripps.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @Mirandacgreen.