Harvesting labor availability has reportedly been adequate so far this season for the Florida citrus industry. However, it could become an issue as some foreign workers under the federal H-2A program leave to work in other industries or to harvest other crops. Several Florida citrus growers and association executives recently addressed the labor situation.
“As our season winds down, it appears that our harvesting manpower is adequate,” said Mike Sparks, chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual. “Unfortunately, there are reports of H-2A workers who absconded — left the job prior to fulfillment of their commitments. This is extremely frustrating as we attempt to complete harvesting for this year. Absconding has been a problem in the past, but this year it appears to be worse than in prior seasons, and we need to address it, along with other H-2A improvements.”
“The absconding problem is progressively getting worse and worse,” said Paul Meador, president of Everglades Harvesting & Hauling, Inc. He said H-2A workers often stop harvesting citrus and other agricultural crops to work illegally for much higher wages in construction and other industries. “Their attitude is, ‘I can make more money in 2 years than I can in 10 years in agriculture,’” he said. Meador also blamed the U.S. State Department for allowing workers who have previously absconded from their H-2A jobs to return again on other visas. The State Department operates the consulates in other countries that issue visas for those visiting the United States.
Peace River Valley Citrus Growers Association Executive Director Kait Shaw said some citrus harvesters could leave later this season. “We will see a potential problem when the other commodity crops are ready to be picked and those workers who were originally contracted will not be able to cross the borders, therefore leading to a bidding war over the laborers who are already in the state of Florida,” she said. “As of right now, the majority of our members are good with their availability.”
Ray Royce, executive director of Highlands County Citrus Growers Association and grower David Wheeler of Wheeler Farms likewise said they were not aware of harvesting labor shortages.
Scott Kerr, harvesting manager for IMG Citrus, also said H-2A labor is adequate for citrus harvesting. But he said the H-2A workers have some concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. “The general labor pool has expressed concerns regarding transportation availability back home as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread,” Kerr said. “Most certainly, there is a state of nervousness within the H-2A pool relating to the outcome of the next few weeks.”
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