May 16, 2007
Agricultural Recruitment System Finds Local Workers For Farmers

Rick Olivarez has boiled the complex subject of farm labor into a simple equation: A = farm workers. B = growers. A + B = harvest.

“You can’t have one without the other,” he said.

As a monitor advocate with the Bureau of Workforce Programs in the Michigan Department of Labor & Economic Growth, it’s Olivarez’s job to help growers and farm workers meet each other’s needs. One of his most effective tools is the Agricultural Recruitment System, but there are growers out there who don’t know about it, he said. The system hasn’t been well publicized, but the labor department is making efforts to change that.

The Agricultural Recruitment System is a federal program overseen by the U.S. Department of Labor and managed by the states. In Michigan, it’s a one-stop employment service for migrant workers and a way for growers to find local help. If local workers aren’t available, the system looks for them in other states – usually Texas, Florida or the Carolinas. If workers still can’t be found, the next step is the federal H-2A program, which finds laborers from foreign countries. Growers have to prove they’ve exhausted the recruitment of local workers before they can move on to H-2A workers, Olivarez said.

Last year, more than 4,900 farm workers applied for jobs through Michigan’s recruitment system, compared to 224 H-2A workers. There are more than 100 employment centers spread throughout the state. The centers also offer unemployment, job training and education programs, he said.

The recruitment system could use more money for marketing and promotional trips, but a tight state budget makes that difficult. Other tools are being used, however, like an English/Spanish Web site – – that informs workers and growers about labor opportunities. There’s an area on the site where growers can create profiles about their farms and specify their labor needs. Migrant workers across the country can read the profiles. It’s basically free advertising for the growers, Olivarez said.

The state is doing more to promote the recruitment system this year, since growers, processors and nurseries are struggling to find workers, said Kevin Benson, an agricultural employment specialist with Michigan’s labor department. It’s challenging at times to find agricultural workers, but for the most part the program is successful, he said.

Benson, who matches workers and employers in the Traverse City area, described the typical recruitment process: A grower looking for workers calls Benson or another specialist and tells him what he needs. The specialist starts by opening a local job order online. If no one is available locally, the search extends outside the state – usually in Texas. If workers aren’t found outside the state, growers have to resort to the H-2A program.

If you’re bringing in workers from outside your state, you must provide them with licensed housing and must pay them the prevailing wage in your area, Benson said.

Benson and other specialists get basic information from workers like their names, addresses, dates of birth and Social Security Numbers, but it’s not their job to verify a worker’s legality, he said.

Neither the state nor federal departments of labor are responsible for making sure workers are legally documented. That’s the responsibility of the homeland security and immigration departments, Olivarez said.

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