MANATEE -- Harvesters and growers in Manatee and surrounding counties are already experiencing a labor shortage due to a declining U.S. economy, added jobs in other countries and difficulty with illegal border crossings.
Now, the government shutdown is worsening their problem.
The H-2A program, a federal program that allows U.S.
farmers to bring workers from other countries to fill temporary agriculture jobs, is affected by the shutdown. The program provides a constant stream of labor, and many harvesters, especially in Florida, depend on it.
Growers who use the H-2A program are now afraid they won't have workers come harvest time. And if the shutdown does end before harvest, the backlog of petitions will be immense, creating a long wait time.
"The government shutdown has created a gap in the process," said Barbara Carlton, executive director of the Peace River Valley Citrus Growers Association in Arcadia. "Here we are coming to harvest and ... you're dealing with produce that ripens, and once it ripens you need to harvest it and put it through a process whether you're selling it fresh or making juice out of it. If you don't use it in the window when it's ripe, it'll rot, and you'll lose your crop."
About 90 percent of operations at the H-2A program's processing center, located in Chicago, are shut down, said Andrew Meadows, director of communications for the Florida Citrus Mutual. The organization is in contact with Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to designate the processing jobs as "essential" in the furlough and get the center back up and running.
"There's some fruit being picked right now, but it really starts to pick up in early November, so we're getting down to crunch time now," Meadows said.
When the shutdown came into effect, employees of the processing plant were not characterized as essential workers.
"We think there was a mistake in not characterizing them as essential workers because certainly the ability to feed this country is essential, and that's not going to get done if we don't have harvesters available for us," said Mike Carlton, director of the labor relations division at the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.
For the 2012-13 season, 12,000 applications for H-2A work were filed, Mike Carlton said. The season before that, 9,000 were filed.
The relationship between H-2A workers and their U.S. employers is symbiotic.
Farmers house and provide transportation for their workers, and they must pay for transportation between the workers' home country and the United States, which makes the program expensive.
Workers are not allowed to leave their employer. If they do, they will be kicked out of the program.
Most workers are eager to be involved with H-2A because, at around $10 an hour, the pay is decent and they are well taken care of.
In return, harvesters are guaranteed a labor force and peace of mind.
Sorrells Citrus in Arcadia has used the H-2A program exclusively for the last 15 years. This year, harvesting manager Justin Sorrells got the petition into Chicago before the shutdown. He already has 350 workers lined up for harvest time.
"It was nothing but dumb luck to say we got ours through by the shutdown," he said. "But it has been our policy to start early. In citrus, harvest time for everybody is the same, and if you wait you have to fight everyone else to get those slots."
Some Manatee area growers have not been affected by the shutdown: Mixon Fruit Farms in Bradenton and Hunsader Farms in East Manatee do not participate in H-2A as they hire local workers. SMR Farms, however, uses HB Harvesting in Arcadia which gets its workers through H-2A.
If the processing center in Chicago is not put back into operation soon, growers who depend on H-2A will be in trouble.
"We don't have a 'plan B' because there are not enough domestic workers," Barbara Carlton said. "You hear a lot of times that guest workers are taking American jobs, but Americans don't want to do this job. It's very hard."
Sabrina Rocco, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @sabrinarocco.