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American Dairy Coalition working to secure foreign workers
May 4, 2017

Enrique Correal knows the anxiety that foreign workers go through when they hear about deportation and new immigration policies coming out of Washington, D.C.

Correal is from Colombia, but he has been working in the U.S. for eight years. He currently is based in Sioux Falls with Alta Genetics, working as a reproduction specialist who consults with dairies across the Midwest. He travels to dairies in four states and hears the same concerns about labor shortages and deportation at every stop.

“The panic in these people is unbelievable,” he said.

Immigration policies from President Donald Trump’s administration have foreign workers in agriculture on edge, but Midwestern groups are working on ways to help the dairy industry secure the labor it needs.

Correal said foreign workers are critical to the dairy industry. “We’re doing the jobs that no one else wants to do,” he said. “They’re hard-working people.”

Though Trump’s early policy hasn’t been friendly to the foreign worker, the American Dairy Coalition is optimistic about creating an avenue for farmers to get the labor they need. Coalition founder and CEO Laura Fischer is aiming for a guest worker program, and she thinks it will go over well in Washington. She said they want workers who are documented. They want to know who they are, their correct name and where their working.

Her Wisconsin-based organization is working on federal legislation that would provide workers with legal status without giving them U.S. citizenship. One bill would allow temporary workers to work in the country for three years as long as they work within the state that sponsored them. The federal government would oversee the program, but each state would run it. The bill also calls for about 600,000 visas for all types of industries looking for both highly skilled and entry-level workers.

A similar bill would allow temporary workers to come to the U.S. for 18 months. A portion of their pay would be withheld during that time, and they could access it when they return to their home country.

The American Dairy Coalition is working in Washington to drum up support. Fischer said some legislators need an education on the dairy industry and the labor situation.

“They believe if farmers paid more money, they would be able to find the workforce here,” she said.

Dorothy Elliott, owner of Drumgoon Dairy in Lake Norden, S.D., knows that’s not the case. She spoke on a panel with coalition experts and others at the Central Plains Dairy Expo in Sioux Falls last month.

Drumgoon is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week operation, but domestic laborers don’t want to work nights, weekends or holidays, Elliott said, and other employees are always covering for them. “You end up having to let them go,” she said.

Drumgoon has hired some Puerto Rican workers, sidestepping the need for a visa. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and a new program through South Dakota State University Extension is looking to the island territory as an answer for dairy’s labor shortage. Unemployment in Puerto Rico is high, and so is the cost of living.

“Rural Puerto Ricans want to follow the American dream. They want a job,” said Maristela Rovai, dairy specialist with SDSU Extension who is helping coordinate the program.

Puerto Rico is an associated state, but it has its own constitution and its own government, so there is a special process for recruiting workers. The SDSU program is set up to help dairy farmers though that process. SDSU Extension associates are working to promote the program to dairies in South Dakota.

The state’s labor laws add another challenging component to recruiting Puerto Ricans. South Dakota doesn’t require farm employers to carry workers’ compensation on their employees. The Puerto Rican government, however, requires some sort of insurance to cover work-related injuries.

Rovai encourages producers to consider providing workers’ compensation coverage. For a dairy with 27 employees, it would cost roughly $50,000 per year, or 54 cents per hour per employee, she estimated.

Before U.S. employers can recruit workers living in Puerto Rico, they need to sign up with Puerto Rico’s Department of Labor. The process starts with a recruitment letter to the Puerto Rican secretary of labor. From there, they’ll develop a contract with details about the job and employment package and create a job order form, stating the minimum qualifications for employees. Dairies here need to have a certificate of good standing from their state’s department of labor.

Program aims to ease immigrant workers’ transition
Angel Feliciano came from Puerto Rico to milk cows at Drumgoon Dairy in Lake Norden, S.D.

The initial paperwork takes a week to 10 days for approval. Then recruiters in Puerto Rico advertise for the job and screen potential workers. Producers using the SDSU program can require that potential hires go through an orientation program in Puerto Rico. This is meant to teach applicants what sort of work dairying involves and what they might expect after a move to the Midwest. The idea is that if the workers know what to expect, they’ll be less likely to leave the job.

Rovai hosted one of these orientations last winter when she traveled to Puerto Rico to talk with government officials and prospective employees. Visiting a rural area, she explained to the prospective workers what the job involves, what the community is like and what kind of weather to expect. She said they were surprised to learn the reasonable price for food and car insurance.

“More than just a paycheck, they are looking to find security,” Rovai said.

Three people left the room when she showed them a video of a milking parlor, where they would be working. “That’s OK; that’s the idea of an orientation,” she said, “so they don’t leave when they travel all the way to the U.S.”

The SDSU program also conducts personal interviews of the applicants and sets up a visit to a commercial dairy in Puerto Rico. Rovai said the goal is to find the most suitable candidates.

Producers can take on the application process with the Puerto Rican government on their own. Getting guidance through the SDSU program costs producers $500 per hired employee.

SDSU and other groups in Brookings have created programs to ease the transition for foreign workers once they move here. Feeling welcome in a community is a big part of keeping workers here, too, Rovai said.

 

Source: EDairy News


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