Sans Immigration Reform, Dairy Farmers Shoulder Big Burden

4/20/2013 7:00 AM

Chris Torres

Staff Writer

For years, Hershey, Pa., dairy farmer Frank Graybill employed a local man to help with the three daily milkings on his 165-acre dairy farm.

That was until late last year, when his trusted worker left to start his own dairy farm, leaving just his son and neighbor, who work part time on the farm.

Knowing that other dairy farmers use Hispanic labor, he started asking around for help too. With the assistance of another farmer, he hired a Mexican man to work full time, doing two milkings per day.

Even with all of the talk of undocumented immigrants and the fear of government inspections of farms, Graybill is confident he’s hired someone who is legally able to work in the country.

“I talked to my accountant, he alerted me about papers, but he had no questions. So I take everything as legitimate, but I’ve done everything with good intentions,” Graybill said.

And so far, he has no regrets about hiring the worker, even though communication can sometimes be a challenge.

“People ask us if communication is a problem. Sometimes, but I have miscommunication with my wife, too. But we really do appreciate him,” he said.

While farmers in general face issues securing a reliable workforce, claiming local people just don’t want the jobs, it’s especially tricky for dairy farmers since guestworker programs like H2A don’t cover year-round work and they have to rely on paperwork given to them by prospective employees.

It’s a system of self auditing that’s burned some dairy farmers and causes many others to bristle at the idea of hiring foreign workers.

“The biggest problem remains the same, having to track these things and having to be a migration agent at the same time,” said Ricky Palladino, a Philadelphia attorney who specializes in immigration issues. “The concerns that we’ve been hearing aren’t any different than what we’ve heard before. It’s always the same thing, how do I know whether someone is giving me a real document?’”

Kreider Farms of Manheim, a 2,500-acre, 1,500-cow operation, knows full well the potential impacts of having people with questionable work papers.

A late 2011 audit of the company’s I-9 worker verification forms by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security forced the company to let go of 109 employees who allegedly had questionable documentation.

Even though the company wasn’t fined for the incident, Terri Turner, human resources manager, said it forced the company to re-evaluate the way it screened employees, including using the free, Internet-based E-Verify system.

Since putting the system in place in April 2012, Turner said the company has used it to screen 320 new hires, 10 of whom eventually were fired because the system couldn’t verify their legal status.

“I think it’s a good system and it is working for us,” Turner said.

But it’s far from perfect.

She said the system isn’t capable of screening people using false documents, such as a Social Security number belonging to someone else. So the company has instituted random background checks to help prevent this from happening.

And even though E-Verify has worked to prevent ineligible employees from getting work with the company, it’s reduced the pool of workers Kreider’s can choose from.

“Once word gets out that you are using E-Verify, then people without proper documentation aren’t going to apply,” she said.

Many of the 109 workers let go after the 2011 audit, she said, had extensive work experience with the company. But only nine of them have been hired back thus far and many people hired since last April have ended up leaving after just a few hours on the job.

“Getting good people is difficult. These are skilled positions. It is a skill set with these ag workers that is not prevalent in our community,” she said. “We do not have that many people with experience to work with the cows or the chickens.”

Talk of comprehensive immigration reform has gained some momentum in the last few weeks. A comprehensive immigration bill was expected to be introduced in the U.S. Senate this week, according to news reports.

In March the government released a new I-9 form, which Palladino said isn’t much different from the current form, except for larger boxes and a barcode for electronic filing, which he thinks is an indication that the government is moving toward some sort of universal E-Verify system.

He said enforcement activity has varied on farms but that overall enforcement has actually increased.

“The Obama Administration had made immigration less enforcement minded, putting more efforts and money into reform. Even in light of that, we’re seeing an increase in enforcement,” he said.

Looking at statistics from Immmigation and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the priority has shifted to focusing on deporting convicted criminals. In 2012, 55 percent of deportations were convicted criminals, while the remainder consisted of fugitives, repeat immigration violators, border removals and “other removable aliens.”

One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the burden on employers to reverify legal status of their employees. In many cases, Palladino said, migrant workers on dairy farms overstay temporary work visas and their employer is required to check their status, which can vary greatly depending on the type of permit the worker has.

“The burden is on the employer to go forward and verify. In many ways, the I-9 is an active document. You want to be active and think about this document being audited,” he said.

If anything, Turner said the experience of going through an I-9 audit reinforces the idea of keeping good, current records.

“Do everything, do it right. Your I-9s, make sure you’re doing them correctly. Be diligent about that I-9 compliance and as long as you’re doing that, you should be fine,” she said.

Ximena del Campo, dairy Extension educator in Lancaster County who is Hispanic herself, said dairy farmers she talks to just want a system that gives them confidence they’ll be able to secure a reliable workforce throughout the year.

“Most of the farmers, the progressive ones, want some kind of immigration reform that would take care of the undocumented people that come to the U.S., some kind of immigration reform that allows them to have a stable workforce,” del Campo said.

Frank Graybill said he’s encouraged the one Mexican worker he has to take off one day a week, but the worker refuses to do so, opting instead to work more hours milking twice a day and doing other work on the farm.

“We asked if he was happy, but he wanted more work. They want to work seven days a week. If we do that to other help, they feel they are not being treated fairly,” Graybill said.

It’s this kind of work ethic, he said, that would be hard to find locally. “I would say we would have had a little problem getting someone doing what this guy does,” he said.

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