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Entrepreneur's Journal

Struggling with the Temporary Worker Visa Process

The Entrepreneur: Meg Crawford, 61

Background: Crawford's love of gardening began when she was a child cultivating flowers with her mother in her family's garden. After a 10-year career teaching elementary and middle school while raising her two children, Crawford decided to study horticulture and landscape design, first at Massachusetts Bay Community College and later at the Radcliffe School of Landscape Architecture & Design, with the goal of starting her own business.

The Company: In 1992, Crawford started Twin Ponds Nursery, a small ornamental plant nursery and landscape design business, in the town of Rhinebeck, in New York's Hudson River Valley.

Revenue: $80,000 in 2008.

Her Story: After nearly two decades running my business, initially with a partner, then on my own, I can say my biggest problem comes down to finding good seasonal labor. For years, I hired part-time local American workers but found the majority were neither very skilled, motivated, nor reliable. It became clear that hiring locally was not going to be sustainable if I wanted to stay in business.

And so, three years ago, after careful deliberation, I decided to hire migrant workers. It seemed like the best way to move forward. But when I made this decision, I wanted to do it legally, unlike many who simply hire undocumented workers. Little did I know how difficult it would be to try and do the right thing, the right way.

In late 2006, I asked someone I knew at the New York State Labor Dept. to help me through the process to get my first H-2A worker. H-2A workers are agricultural workers who come for the growing season and then return to their home countries. Since I have no work from late November until late March or early April, this type of worker seemed ideal for me. Indeed, for the past three years, I have hired one or two H-2A workers from Mexico a year. Once they arrive, I can count on them being ready and eager to work reliably until the end of the season.

What I can't seem to rely on, however, is the whole H-2A system. It calls for an incredibly arduous process—even with the help of my friend at the department and a Spanish-speaking go-between familiar with the bureaucracies involved. The application's three-month time frame combined with the significant costs of the application itself, the visa, the transportation, and the housing for the employee lead me to understand why so many employers hire undocumented workers when they cannot find American workers with the skills or work ethic required.

Three Bureaucracies Like every other employer involved in the H-2A visa process in New York State, I was required to work with three bureaucracies, two of which are accessible only by e-mail. They included New York State's Labor Dept., the federal government's U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services, and the consulate in Mexico—employers have to work with the consulate in the employee's country of origin. To start, the Labor Dept. had to approve my business. Then I had to pay to advertise for workers within a large regional area near my business to prove that there were no willing and able American workers to hire. I also had to demonstrate that I had adequate housing for the workers. After that, I had to begin the process with the USCIS to arrange appointments for my prospective employees with a consulate in their home country. Once they were approved, I had to arrange for their transportation to the States, among other tasks. Despite all of the red tape, like every other employer, I could only begin the process two months before I needed my employees—I couldn't start it any sooner, per the rules.

In each of the three years that I have been doing this, there has been at least one mistake made at one of the three bureaucracies, slowing the process considerably. For the prospective employees, who are often traveling from their villages and then waiting for visa approval in a foreign city for an extended time, it is also a costly endeavor—not to mention a scary one since absolutely nothing is guaranteed. Adding to the anxiety and confusion is the language problem.

The headaches didn't end once the workers arrived and the paperwork was filed. Once here, there were also questions about taxation and insurance. The IRS and the Labor Dept. told me different things regarding these workers. They were not to be on my payroll, but they are not exactly subcontractors either. My insurance company covered them as if they were employees for workmen's compensation or disability, but charged me as if they were subcontractors. Until this year, they did not get a tax number. This confusion added more business expenses. I estimate that I've paid $680 for the visa process (including the advertising), $3,200 for their rent, $1,400 for their transportation, and another $1,500 for insurance on top of what I pay for in normal insurance. Any snafus can add more costs on top of this.

So, why bother? I cannot find the workers I need to sustain my business here. Without the H-2A workers I would have to close shop. Whether documented or undocumented, these foreign workers are fueling our economy with their labor and their consumption. If our country would recognize that they are crucial to the operations of many of our small businesses and streamline the working visa process for both seasonal and year-round workers, I believe the undocumented labor force would greatly decrease. It will both benefit our economy and help the foreign workers help their families when they return home.

It seems to me there is a way forward, but so far that path has been more like a maze bogged down in unnecessary politicizing and reams of red tape. At the end of the planting season, I will go through this whole process once again. Like many, I want to do the right thing by my workers and for my business.

—Edited by Stacy Perman

More essays are available in our ongoing series.

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