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Temporary workers visa program grows in western Idaho

CALDWELL, Idaho (AP) — On a cold Saturday afternoon in February, two dozen men wearily exited two white vans at Farmway Village in Caldwell, stretching their legs and fumbling for luggage. After a two-day drive from the Mexican border town of Nogales to the Treasure Valley, they were all likely looking forward to a hot meal, shower and rest.

Yet as soon as they exited the vans, every passenger — most in their early 20s — joined a long line, enthusiastically shaking hands and thanking their employers and the Caldwell Housing Authority staff waiting for them.

Unlike the bus that arrived in the early morning hours a few days before, almost all of these men were returning for their second year working for Central Cove Hop and Watson Agriculture in Parma and staying at Farmway Village. All are Mexican nationals working in the United States as part of the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program, which allows American companies to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary agricultural jobs. In addition to meeting stringent program requirements, H-2A employers are also required to provide their workers with transportation and housing — which is where the Caldwell Housing Authority comes in.

Before they settle into their shared dorms — home for the next several months — they eat dinner in a large group with the gathered housing authority staff. After dinner, Mike Dittenber, the housing authority executive director, and bilingual staff member Cecilia Flores conduct an orientation that Dittenber said always begins with an important message.

Idaho’s agricultural industry has suffered during the last year’s labor shortage — especially farms and businesses that rely on seasonal and temporary laborers. Many agricultural jobs require long workweeks of manual labor. Most positions are inherently temporary or seasonal, with only three- to six-month contracts. And some in the industry say raising wages doesn’t always attract the number of workers local farmers need just to fully harvest their crops.

The Snake River Farmers Association is a nonprofit and H-2A service provider based in Heyburn, Idaho, that helps agricultural employers comply with federal requirements to hire temporary workers through the H-2A program. The association has nearly 600 member employers across 13 states, with 350 members in Idaho. Anderson said there are about 15 Canyon County employers that use the H-2A program, 12 of which are members of the association.

Those requirements — which can change year to year — include extensive documentation, worker retention, payroll and record-keeping compliance above and beyond regular employment rules.

Anderson said some of the Snake River Farmers Association’s work involves answering questions and clearing up misconceptions about the H-2A visa program. Many first-time applicants for H-2A visa workers aren’t aware that they have to pay for the in-bound transportation of their workers and provide housing, or that Idaho employers must pay all workers the state’s minimum wage for foreign, non-immigrant agricultural workers — currently $11.63. Additionally, only seasonal or temporary positions can be filled by workers from the H-2A visa program, thereby excluding dairies and other year-round producers.

Caldwell Housing Authority also works with employers to ensure the guest workers leave Idaho and return to their homes once their contract is up. The farmer will tell the Caldwell Housing Authority the workers’ last day of employment and schedule a move-out inspection of the workers’ apartments. Although the farmers are ultimately responsible to make sure each worker has made travel arrangements by the end of harvest, housing authority staff usually helps workers get to the transportation hub they need, whether the bus station in Nampa or the Boise Airport.

Flores, one of the housing authority staff members who works closely with each group as they settle into Farmway Village, agreed with Dittenber’s assessment. She said she enjoys getting to hear about their families in cities across Mexico and watching them develop real friendships in the Canyon County community. Several of the returning workers clearly felt the same friendship — when they reached Flores’ place in the receiving line after their arrival Saturday, many gave her a hug instead of a handshake.

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