Last week was the annual wafla H-2A Summit! It is the premier H-2A educational event. Riley presented our new Ready On Arrival product in collaboration with wafla, and I took in some break-out sessions. Below I've detailed my top five takeaways from the sessions I listened to and, more importantly, the conversations I had on the side.
🙏 Thank you wafla for putting on a great conference! Especially Kim, Roxana, and Enrique! 🙏
1. No good deed goes unpunished
The legal minimum standards for H-2A, whether it is housing, wages, immigration, etc. can feel onerous for growers, but you have to comply with them. And you want to provide a good working (and living) environment to your employees, but it is clear to me that after listening to the speakers, and the niche questions attendees asked there is no benefit to going above and beyond. Many of the legal issues brought up by attendees were second or third-order effects of providing a nice (but optional!!) perk to employees that on the surface seemed uncomplicated. Perhaps the saving grace to any above-and-beyond perks you provide to H-2A employees is good publicity, and engendering good morale among your foreign workers.
2. We're all babysitters now
Your company is at risk for what your H-2A workers do off the clock. So it is incumbent on you to mitigate that risk. With new overtime regulations, some H-2A workers are seeking jobs outside of your company's working hours, at other farms, in violation of their visas. This can have many ramifications from you having to deal with injuries sustained at the other farm, to in one example, paying the worker's wages they earned at the other farm!! Housing inspections are still burdensome, and stricter rules currently in place in Oregon are anticipated to make their way into Washington as well. Housekeeping is also still a pain, so keep picking up after your workers! At the end of the day, the cleanliness of your housing sites is your responsibility, not the employees'. Finally, and unfortunately, this last piece of advice I took away directly contradicts my first takeaway, but...your H-2A workers will have lives after hours, it is your choice as to whether you help make those lives healthy and stable or not. You and your company are going to deal with the consequences regardless. Interpersonal relationships, drugs & alcohol, STDs, etc. are amplified among your H-2A workers who both work and live together. Some recommendations were providing religious accommodations, games (soccer, volleyball, etc.), and arranging for clinic workers or mental health professionals to visit your housing.
3. Software is eating H-2A
Several presentations focused on the increasing role of software in the H-2A industry. On the recruiting side, the Labor Mobility Project (LaMP) is trying to build a LinkedIn for professional farmworkers in Mexico, with the result being a higher quality foreign labor force and transparency. On the grower side, there are now multiple software companies providing services similar to Ready On Arrival, giving ag employers visibility into the H-2A contracting process and onboarding and training H-2A workers. We are also seeing how important it is to have quality time-tracking software, like FieldClock, as job orders and their listed tasks continue to get more specific due to increasing regulations. Overall, there seems to be a lot of change among growers trying different systems with varying degrees of success. H-2A specific HR software is still very nascent, I'm excited to see where it goes!
4. What activities can we outsource to reduce employer liability?
Not so much a definitive takeaway but a lingering question I began to have as I had more conversations. Two examples illustrated this well:
- A grower talked about how she had an employee drive a worker with a minor injury to the walk-in clinic. This exploded into a cascade of questions: was the driver on the clock? Was the driver using a company vehicle or a personal one? Was the driver an H-2A worker, and was operating a vehicle listed as an activity in their contract? If not, do they need to be paid a higher wage? And it went on and on. At this point, I started to wonder if it would be better for the employer to just call an ambulance. I'm aware that is not the role of emergency services, but is it a workable solution to protect the company? As an aside, I've spent some time living in the UK, and over there, people use the ambulance service as a chauffeur to receive non-emergency medical treatment, at extreme detriment to their health system. I'd hate to see a regulatory environment so onerous it promotes that behavior here.
- A different grower talked about vehicles being abandoned on the farm, at H-2A housing, or in the fields, by H-2A workers after they go home. They didn't want to risk removing this personal property themselves so they called the police and let the police handle it as a trespass.
I wonder if there are other outsourcing opportunities growers have that can reduce their risk??
5. Communication between HR operators and regulators is broken
I performed a survey asking HR operators "How would you describe your awareness of new labor regulations?", here are their responses:
Even with conferences, workshops, webinars, etc. hosted by industry groups and government, not a single one of our growers rated their awareness other than mediocre or failing. While these educational events are critical and valuable, growers need this information more than once-per year. In the paraphrased-words of Enrique, CEO of wafla: "this is our [H-2A and HR people's] whole world, but for our growers it is one of a million things in their world". Taking his wise words to heart means growers deserve continuous education and help in the moments they need it most. Because when asked the follow-up question "When you do hear about a new regulation, do you feel like you know what to do next?" here were the results:
I'm optimistic though! Since software is the tool HR reps use to carry out their job there is a huge opportunity for it to provide real-time, context-aware regulatory guidance and best practices. Every choice an HR rep makes can impact the company, the tool they are using shouldn't just help them execute on their choice, it should help them decide what to choose, and then execute it for them. That's the philosophy we are building at Harvust.