TAMPA — One consequence of the three-week federal government shutdown that ended Thursday could affect Florida’s citrus trees, many of which will soon be ripe for the picking.
The hiatus won’t reduce the size of the yields but might cut into the number of hands that do the picking.
Much of the farm work in Florida’s groves is done by migrant labor, mostly workers from Mexico and Central America who are brought here on temporary agricultural visas.
The workers are admitted through the H-2A application process, which requires certification for out-of-country labor to be brought in on a temporary basis. That process screeched to a halt during the shutdown, and growers now are struggling to get farm labor in place for the winter harvest, which begins next month.
The alarm was raised on the day the shutdown ended when U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, and nine other lawmakers sent a letter to the U.S. Labor Department, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service and the U.S. State Department asking officials there to expedite the processing of temporary agricultural visas.
“We have heard from growers in multiple agricultural industries from across the country who fear that the shutdown of the H-2A visa process will prevent them from getting the workers they need in this crucial harvest season,” the letter stated, “and that as a result, crops will literally wither in the field for lack of workers to pick them resulting in substantial economic losses, reduction of our domestic food supply and higher prices to consumers.”
Bringing in agricultural workers under the visa process is not quick under the best of circumstances.
The government shutdown has caused a backlog in the first step in the process – an application to the Department of Labor, said Mike Carlton, director of labor relations with the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. The association represents most of the state’s fruit and vegetable growers.
Carlton said 92 Florida growers have pending applications to bring in 7,997 workers to help harvest crops, mostly citrus.
The workers have to be cleared to come here and be ready to work by November, he said. Even without the logjam, he said, the processing time can take up to two months. With the backlog, he said, there’s a real problem.
“It’s critical,” he said. “We’re not seeing any positive movement out of the Department of Labor yet on those applications and that’s very concerning.”
Clearance of foreign farm workers from the Department of Labor is only the first of three steps, Carlton said, and growers anticipate hold-ups all along the line.
“We are very concerned,” he said. Should workers not get into the fields in time, “We’ll begin to lose parts of the crop. Fruit will begin to drop and the crop won’t be harvestable. We’re not going to lose all the crop, but the longer the delay, the more fruit we will lose.”
Florida’s citrus crop, grown on some 550,000 acres in the south and central part of the state, pumps $9 billion annually into the state’s economy, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
H-2A applicants are passed from the Department of Labor to Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, and then workers must apply for visas in the nation of their origin.
Department of Labor spokesman Egan Reich said Monday the department is setting up a method by which applications will be expedited, hopefully in time for the winter harvest areas of the country, including Florida.
“The systems were completely shut down” during the government hiatus, he said. “To call it backlog is not quite right. The portal to submit applications was off. Now that the system is coming back up, we still are trying to get our arms around that and see what it is.”